The Mind of a Hacker: What Makes Them Tick?

There’s a reason that hackers on our movie screens are played by actors like Hugh Jackman, Keanu Reeves, and Rami Malek. You see, it’s because hackers – in real life and in movies – are undeniably kind of cool. Even black hat hackers doing millions of dollars worth of damage to organizations and throwing the internet into disarray are intriguing shadowy figures machinating below the radar of society, typing as fast as they can scheme.

Black hat and white hat hackers alike have distinct personality traits that allow them to excel at what they do. A glimpse into the mind of a hacker is a fascinating glimpse indeed. Here’s what it takes to be a black hat hacker…and what it takes to go legit.

Black Hat Attributes

Black hat hackers, to begin with, require a strong interest in and talent for many aspects of information technology including programming, scripting, networking, and virtualization etc. But even before those skills are developed, black hat hackers need a few specific personality traits that allow them to succeed in their chosen illegal field.


For black hat hackers, weaseling their way into an important database is a rush, especially if he or she can find a new way to do it. One former black hat hacker even says that selling credit card numbers – in other words, making a profit – is actually the tiring, laborious part of being a hacker. Black hat hackers always have to be looking for the next target, chasing down the next high of a successful crack. They’re neophiles, in search of novel ways to defeat cybersecurity defenses and get into places they absolutely do not belong.


There are so many potential vulnerabilities out there it’s impossible to come close to quantifying. However, generally speaking, any vulnerability an organization’s cybersecurity team or software and hardware developers have already thought of and dealt with is not going to work. So black hat hackers need to find another way, one that perhaps no one else has ever even considered. To be truly successful with these malicious intrusions there can be no hacking attempt checklist attackers work their way down. They need to be able to imagine new ways of breaking in and then figure out a way to make those ideas a reality, a feat that requires no shortage of creativity.


Here comes the science. A study published in Frontiers of Neuroscience looked into the personality traits that enable someone to excel at hacking. What they found was the leading trait specifically correlated with code-breaking ability is what’s called systemizing – the drive to build and/or understand systems, which for this purpose is anything that has underlying rules that govern behavior, not just computer systems. Though the stereotype of a hacker may be of someone who is obsessed with technology and little else, many hackers actually have a wide field of interest when it comes to the way things work.

A Willingness to Break the Law

Well, yeah. Maybe it goes without saying, but there are no shades of grey surrounding black hat hacking. Perhaps that’s why it’s not called grey hat hacking. Many of the activities associated with black hat hacking and the results of it are firmly classified as crimes, namely accessing a computer, network, or system without authorization, misusing computer system data, identity theft and larceny. These charges can carry prison sentences of up to 20 years. Black hat hackers know this, and on some level, they have to be okay with it.

Putting on the White Hat

White hat hackers have many, if not all or even more, of the same technical skills and aptitudes black hat hackers have. In fact, many of the top white hat hackers are reformed black hat hackers. In addition to the technical skills and personality traits they share with black hat hackers, white hat hackers have a few extra quirks that makes them what they are. These include:

An Unwillingness to Break the Law

It had to start here. White hat hackers like chasing the high of a new intrusion and cracking systems as much as black hat hackers, they just want to make their money by helping to protect organizations instead of potentially destroying them. This obvious difference is the most fundamental.


While black hat hackers are tunnel-focused lone wolves who tend to care only about their own hacking-related goals, white hat hackers need a competitive streak that makes them want to beat black hat hackers at their own game. White hat hacking is an industry where an unhealthy fixation on being faster, smarter, and better can pay off handsomely.


In order to do what they do at a high level, white hat hackers need to understand not only how developers and cybersecurity professionals think, but also how black hat hackers think. This translates to a significant need for empathy. In the end, it isn’t programming skills or a knowledge of scripting languages that best equips a white hat hacker but perhaps the ability to take a holistic view of cybersecurity measures from the perspective of a black hat hacker and a security operations team.

Getting in the Game

Not all of the personality traits that help a black hat or white hat hacker succeed are altogether expected, just like many of the people regularly kicking butt all over the internet (whether ethically or not) aren’t necessarily who you would expect either. You aren’t going to find anyone advocating for black hat hacking in this space, of course, but the cyber landscape always needs more heroes willing to don a white hat and get to work cracking, hacking, smashing and finessing their way into an organization’s most sensitive databases all in the name of cybersecurity.

If you saw a little of yourself in any of those traits listed above, or if you’ve always thought there was an uncanny resemblance between you and Rami Malek, an ethical hacking course or certification could be well worth looking into.

For more on the latest in cybersecurity trends and news, check out other cybersecurity blogs and news.

To learn more about UCF Cybersecurity Programs, CLICK HERE to get in touch with our Cyber Education Advisors.



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