Social engineering: the dark side of psychology?

When we hear the word engineering, we can imagine, among other things, men with helmets and blueprints (for that of civil engineering), extravagant mathematical calculations or computer geniuses as we see them in the movies.

However, there is another type of engineering, so subtle that it can even lead to big changes: the social engineering.

Social engineering: defining the concept

It may sound like science fiction but, in fact, social engineering exists and is used by many, from hackers to governments, and here begins one of the main concerns: what is meant by the term social engineering?

The term has a long history, but we can sum it up by saying that there are basically two ways to understand this concept. The first, taken from the field of computing, to be precise from hackers; and the second, drawn from political science.

For hackers or people involved in computer security in general, social engineering is the act of manipulating a person through psychological techniques and social skills to achieve specific goals (Sandoval, 2011) which in this area , generally refer to obtaining and obtaining information or accessing the system.

On the other hand, political science has understood social engineering as any program dedicated to influencing the attitudes, relationships and actions of society so that he adopts the vision in question to be implemented.

The role of psychology in social engineering

the psychology it plays an important role in both conceptions of social engineering, because it is from the use of psychological techniques that their implementation is made possible.

Social engineering techniques

Some of these techniques are in fact quite simple and are based on behaviors inherent in the human person because they have a social and evolutionary function which predisposes us to them.

For example, applied at the individual level as hackers do, Kevin Mitnick (2002), expert in the field, mentions at least four basic and psychological principles that make a social engineering attack vulnerable. These principles are:

  • We all want to help: this is a cultural issue and it is deeply rooted. Helping is one of the first things children are taught, just as it is a social principle in the West and the East.
  • The first step towards the other is trust: here more than one could disagree because not everyone always generates the same trust and many factors come into play; but, in principle, this is correct because from an early age we learn to trust others. It is part of our evolution and of our nature (NatGeo, 2015).
  • Let’s avoid saying “no”: while it is true that we do not always say yes to everything, the vast majority of people find it difficult to say no. It will all depend on how the information is requested and social engineers are adept at searching for this form.
  • We all love to be praised: the search for recognition exists in human nature and to be praised is a good way to satisfy this need (Mankeliunas, 1996), it is not surprising that it can be used to manipulate or so that d ‘others manipulate us.

Behavioral theory and experimental psychology have given us many useful techniques for modifying and controlling behavior (remembering that the behaviorist definition of psychology includes both goals).

Application of social engineering principles through marketing

However, is this socially applicable? The answer is yes. We must not forget that marketing and advertising do this all the time. In fact, social engineering – as understood in political science – arose in the realm of business with JC van Marken and from there was extrapolated to political science. Propaganda, manipulation of language, support of voices of authority (such as politicians, scientists, academics) are just some of the media used.

Noam chomsky mentions some manipulation techniques including the graduality strategy, Use the emotional aspect in arguments, create problems then propose solutions, reinforce self-guilt, the strategy of postponing one decision among others. Examples of its use throughout history have been totalitarian governments (Nazism, fascism, communism, for example) but the same is true in democracies and more easily.

social experiences

As a social being who is the human being, seeks in principle not to be different because to be different is to be excluded (need to belong). This psychological fact is what is mainly used to atomize a society into more controllable and in turn more manipulable groups. Stanley Milgram, for example, has demonstrated with his experience how easily people can be manipulated by someone with “authority” to get them to do this during the experiment, participants will be ordered to increase the power on the body. ‘momentum. Electric they were using to indicate an error to an actor who they did not see but heard their screams.

On the other hand, Solomon Asch demonstrated that the influence of others can cause people to act above their own opinions and values ​​while Philip Zimbardo revealed how taking on roles changes people’s behavior. We also know that language manipulation manipulates the perception of a phenomenon X (as is done in cognitive behavioral therapy). If the media repeats it over and over again, it becomes easier to accept this phenomenon from the masses.

These are just a few examples of experiences underpinning large-scale social engineering techniques by institutions, non-governmental organizations, political parties and governments. Propaganda plays an important role in the development of social engineering by recalling that it is with the knowledge of human beings, their tendencies, their desires, their needs, their psychic mechanisms, their automatisms, as well as the knowledge of psychology social and analytical psychology this propaganda refines its techniques (Jaques Ellul).

Now is social engineering negative?

From my perspective, the answer would be no. At least not in itself. While it is true that social engineering has been used to implement a program that imposes a specific worldview (in totalitarian and democratic systems), it it is true that it can be used to solve real problemsIn other words, it can be used for good beyond political, economic or ideological pettiness.

If social engineering techniques can be used to end a relationship or gain private information or impose a point of view or a new law previously contrary to popular sentiment, why couldn’t it be used otherwise?

In this regard, the philosopher Karl Popper (1945) thought this was actually the right way to use it. For him, the nature of social engineering was to solve social problems in a manner analogous to what an engineer does for greater production. On the other hand, the difference between the social engineering of democratic and totalitarian societies. In democratic societies, the solution is consensual and gradual, thus receiving more support. On the contrary, in totalitarian societies, one wants to solve all the evils by imposing an ideal.

In conclusion, psychology and the other disciplines involved have a lot to offer and while it is true that social engineering is often held in a negative conceptIt is also true that it is necessary to solve many problems both individually and socially, so I think training in this regard is important.

Bibliographical references:

  • Anonymous. Manipulation techniques used by mass media (online) 2012. Date of consultation: February 1, 2016. Available at: – the-mass-media /
  • Fierro, A. Social Engineering and Psychology (online) 1982. Accessed February 1, 2016. Available at:
  • Kolber, J. (Producer) (2013) Mental Games [Serie de televisión] United States. National Geographic
  • Mitnick, K. (2002) The Art of Deception. Mexico: John Wiley & Fills
  • Pluss, D. Psychosocial manipulation (online) 2013. Accessed February 1, 2016. Available at:
  • Popper, K. (1945) Open Society and its Enemies. Mexico: Paidós
  • [Potatool] (May 23, 2015) 2.-Social engineering, we think or we think. Retrieved from
  • Comunicar Magazine. Noam Chomsky and the Ten Strategies of Media Manipulation (line) Accessed: February 1, 2016. Available at:
  • Rodriguez, J. [Juan Carlos Rodríguez] (July 25, 2014) Introduction to social engineering. Retrieved from
  • Sandoval, E. Social Engineering: Corrupting the Human Mind (online) 2011. Accessed February 1, 2016.

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