Social engineering: investing into people skills?

Simple situations, advanced psychology

Social engineering, at its base, is a simple skill. It does not require a degree or extensive reading, for it to be applied for most social interactions. Defined as the “management of human beings in accordance with their place and function in society” by Merriam Webster dictionary, the method of social engineering is relatively uncomplicated.

The definition of social engineering manages to capture all of its essence. By breaking down the definition, we will see the fuller picture of this different type of engineering.

Social engineering, at its core, is people skills. “Management of human beings” is the most important part of the definition. This type of engineering deals with real world problems by managing personal interactions with people.

“[…] in accordance with their place and function” is the second part of the definition. You will waste your resources if you try to apply the same psychological principles on people with different stations in life. It sounds harsh, but it’s true. A person applying overtly dominant engineering methods on a manager won’t likely achieve his or hers goals. Moreover, the “function” of a person is also very important. Contrary methods should be applied to people working different jobs or employed in different roles. The management of a gatekeeper and a service person will differ like night and day.

“[…] in society” is the last part of the definition, but I believe it is the second most important. At all times, when you are applying social engineering, you must not forget that you are operating in a society. And society has rules and traditions. If you apply social engineering in nefarious ways, you will inquire a penalty from the society. It may be as simple as ostracization from a friend group, or as complex as going to prison. The “society” part also signals that social engineering is all about relationships and personal interactions.

Basic social engineering methods are simple, but they deal with advanced psychology. One of the most popular and easiest to recognize social engineering methods deals with people’s expectations. When you see a person with a reflective vest, what is the first thing you think about? Probably that he or she is the worker or a maintenance person in the place you see them. You won’t be too worried if you see them examining things in building without direct supervision. That’s where social engineering comes in. Because people’s expectations related to workers are largely the same, a person without identification, but with a reflective vest can enter most places without any difficulties. People have written online about accessing secured places just by wearing reflective vests. Outcomes like these are achieved by applying knowledge related to advanced psychology, real life observations, and of course, general knowledge.

Advancing in life

Many people have a simplistic view about advancing in life. Being nice, working hard and self-improvement seems the only way to achieve something in life. However, this view is only a part of  ways related to gaining success.

Although it can be hard to accept, but being in the right place and at the right time, using psychological tricks and applying different strategies on different people can give you more benefits than hard work. Everyone in their life meets people who embody these qualities. They don’t seem to be special or to work very hard, but they are still able to achieve success. People like these mostly have personality traits and behaviours that mimic social engineering.

You might not have the ability to be at the right place and at the right time right now, but you can work on it. You might not know how to apply different strategies on different people, but you always can learn and practice. And learning starts at the basics.

“Life hacks” and variations of them have gained significant popularity on the Internet since 2010s. Social engineering, at its most basic, can be seen as applying life hacks on social interactions to advance in life.

Let’s analyse a simple situation. For example, you have to ask your co-worker about a big favour for you. Your career advancement depends on the delivery of the favour by your co-worker. What will you do? A person not familiar with social engineering, will apply conventional advice. It would boil down to assuming a submissive position in relation to your co-worker. Sweet talking, trading favours, or even gift giving may be used for the goal of advancing in your career.

But the problem is, these conventional methods are a) very obvious, and b) they do not work on most people. By applying them on people who are used to interactions like these, you risk not only not achieving your goal, but also lowering your social standing in relation to them (if they reject your favour). Those outcomes are undesirable if a person wants to advance in their career, and consequently, in their life.

To avoid a situation like this, use social engineering or at least pay attention to its methods. Continuing with the basics of social engineering, one way of getting to secure your co-worker’s cooperation would be asking for a smaller favour before asking for a bigger one. A simple favour has almost 100% probability of getting accepted. According to psychological research and real life observations, people like continuity. And continuity in the case of favours means not breaking the “streak” of accepting favours.

Also, doing a complex favour is more likely after doing a simple favour because of people’s sense of self-esteem. Doing a simple favour puts a person in a more or less service-like role.”Can you get me the pen” is not exactly a favour that gives your co-worker respect. But by asking for a bigger favour after a simple one, and emphasizing the importance of their role, you are giving your co-worker subtle respect. This creates a contrasting picture with your previous, more basic request, and indirectly putting a person in a service-like role.

Main principles

To use social engineering as different way of investment (think of it as an investment in your social skills), we have to examine where this type of engineering started.

Social engineering started as a way to gain access to computer systems and to test the security of companies and IT departments. Even today, when social engineering has gone mainstream, most of the knowledge surrounding it comes from network security specialists, penetration testers and IT admins. But the good news is, that the same tools related to gaining access to IT systems can be applied to the average social interactions.

This older article from PCWorld lists the top 5 social engineering exploits. They all are related to information security, but you can easily use them to advance in life.

“Familiarity exploit” is very obvious. You probably have seen it in movies or TV series. A con man infiltrates the community of their mark and works to be frequently seen by their mark. This creates familiarity in the eyes of their victim.

For achieving lawful goals, you can use this psychological trick in a non-sociopathic way. If you want to achieve a goal and it requires the cooperation of another person, you would work to become more familiar to them. Of course, don’t start stalking them on their way home; but frequent “bump-ins” and visiting the same coffee shop can do wonders for your personal relationships.

“Reading body language” is a controversial skill on the basis of its legitimacy. Also, how you read body language and respond to people’s non-verbal signals depends on your gender. However, being familiar with obscure non-verbal signals can help you in various situations. If you know how to spot hidden anger, you won’t risk making your boss or a partner mad. If you know how to spot hidden sadness or fear, you could help an important person.

An accessible case study is discussed here. Although it does not go over the nitty-gritty details of social engineering, you can probably guess that the penetration tester looked at the body language of the marks, and applied different techniques on people with differing statuses.

This post discusses real life applications of social engineering. Even if you only skim-read it, you will see that the main principles of social engineering boil down to situational awareness and general knowledge about personal interactions. Deferring to authority when people expect it, assuming a cooperative position and always examining the body language of others are the basis of “life hacking” and advancing by out-of-the-box methods.

Controversy and shunning illegal actions

I personally feel that using social engineering without at least some doubts is not the way to do it. The more a person gets into social engineering, the more obvious it becomes how it can be used both for evil manipulation and helping others in need.

Since social engineering can be used both for illegal and immoral goals, it has attracted controversy. I urge my readers to not commit any illegal or immoral actions.

Because manipulating personal feelings and thoughts by using psychological tricks is not very hard, knowing about it can help you protect yourself and your family and friends. Even a passing knowledge about social engineering will help your personal “danger alarms” go off when someone is trying to manipulate you.

In a roundabout way, social engineering techniques can help you motivate people and make them feel better when they are distressed. Reading body language, knowing how to make someone smile and feel important are skills you develop when you learn social engineering. Who says they should only be used for your own career or personal advancement? Learn social engineering to better the world and help other people feel happier. “Life hacking” so that other people don’t experience distress or sadness is very rewarding.


Without empathy and situational awareness, social engineering would be impossible. Developing your emotional intellect, self-awareness and psychological knowledge is the longer way to investing in people skills. Social engineering, as discussed previously, is the shortcut to it. However, sooner or later, social engineering leads to deeper interpersonal skills and a desire to improve your emotional intellect.

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