Humans Ignore Habituated Security Warnings: MRI Study

Have you ever driven an unfamiliar, winding highway as a tourist? Spotting locals is easy–they’re the ones passing and speeding on the treacherous roads! People tend to get reckless as they grow increasingly familiar with their surroundings. Similarly, humans tend to ignore online security warnings once they’ve habituated to them, a new MRI study reports.

The study, entitled How Polymorphic Warnings Reduce Habituation in the Brain, published by researchers from the University of Pittsburgh, Brigham Young University and Google Inc., found that the more security warnings an online user receives, the less likely  they are to pay attention.

From the study; Anderson et al.

The researchers recruited 25 adults and measured their brain activity in an MRI scanner while they were exposed to repeated online security warnings. Their findings revealed a noticeable drop in visual processing after only one repeated warning, and a “large overall drop” after 13 repeated warnings.

The researchers wrote: “Users’ habituation to security warnings is pervasive, and is often attributed to users’ carelessness and inattention. However, we demonstrate that habituation is largely obligatory as a result of how the brain processes familiar visual stimuli.”

Polymorphic, warnings, however (warnings with alternating colours, layouts and words such as the warnings pictured above) were shown to reduce the level of habituation in the study’s participants. “Changing appearance of the warning reinvigorates attention, especially in brain regions that have been shown to demonstrate RS to exact repetitions of visual stimuli,” the researchers wrote. “For this reason, polymorphic warnings that continually change their appearance will slow the rate of habituation.”


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