What Your Passwords Say About Your Psychology

"123456" and "password" are not an option
"123456" and "password" are not an option
Marlène Duretz

PARIS — On the other end of the line, the voice of the person from the IT maintenance service grows insistent. “Miss, I really need your password to unlock your computer.” You blush by yourself, try to be as inconspicuous as possible in the open office before whispering in the receiver: “lapinou69” (“bunny69”). A chuckle from the IT guy, as you try in vain to justify the choice.

According to Gemalto, the world leader in digital security, one billion data records were stolen in cyberspace in 2014, half of those attacks being linked to identity theft. Cyber crime is skyrocketing and experts are panicking. And yet, more than half of French Internet users protect their life online with passwords that are pet names and birthdays.

The security of such passwords is close to zero, experts have warned. Especially when you use the same to access your emails, Facebook profile, online banking and eBay account. But of course, we all know these are easier to remember. “When you’re sitting at your computer, you first look for simplicity, correlated to your own estimated ability to reproduce a password,” explains Francis Eustache, neuropsychologist and leader of a research unit on memory at the Inserm. “This is procedural memory, what philosopher Henri Bergson used to call digital memory, the memory in our finger, the one that’s separated from the meaning.”

But simplicity is not the only factor at play when we choose a password. “Research has shown that it’s not only a matter of laziness. The intimate connection we establish with our passwords is also at play,” says Emmanuel Schalit, CEO of Dashlane, a password manager software.

“I used to systematically choose my husband’s date of birth," recalls Rebecca. "Then we had a son, so I used his. Then we had a daughter …” Wanting to please her children, she now interchanges both dates of birth randomly, but admits getting mixed up, and also feeling guilty for having shut her husband away from her virtual life.

Already in 2001, British psychologist Helen Petrie, a specialist of man-machine interaction at City University London, was studying how 1,200 users were creating their passwords. She concluded that our choices are our personality in a nutshell, a sort of “21st century Rorschach test.”

“The brain tries to work as little as possible so it rests on what it has already learned," says Francis Eustache. "Humans rely on its fundamentals, what they like, their hobbies, their aspirations.”

A daily confessional

It’s therefore only natural that Michel, a soccer fan, has been using since France won the World Cup in 1998 “Iwillsurvive” as a password, after a remix version of Gloria Gaynor’s song that became the world champions’ anthem. For Pierre, it’s “cinéphile midinette” ("movie sweetheart"), a “glorious quote” from Brigitte Bardot in the 1957 movie … And God Created Woman. “Because a password shouldn’t be forgotten, why not use a memory,” says Mila. Her own password is “Quiberon86,” “the time and place of an unfinished love story,” but one that she forces herself to think about several times per day.

Eustache says the unconscious also liberates itself in this intimate space that’s supposed to remain secret, "For some, those eight characters can be a way to exorcize old demons, the name of an absent father or a connection to the country we left as a child. “My password is the verb "to cry" in Iranian,” says Rani, exiled since 1979.

“I was so frightened by the film Jaws that I was scared of swimming for a long time,” explains Berthe. “My first passwords were variations of my phobia, sharks and other animals, which with time have become an object of great fascination.”

Others have turned passwords into autosuggestion 2.0. “After my pregnancy, I chose "IAmTooFat" until I reached my ideal weight again,” says Perrine. An anxious Thierry picked “yodayoda” so the Force would always be with him. As for the “quitsmoking” and “dontgivein,” their use is spreading as fast as that of electronic cigarettes.

For sociologist Stéphane Hugon, passwords are like “a confessional.” It frees you, “becoming the place where you leave things that have become burdensome, either because you can’t achieve them or, on the contrary, to identify them and separate yourself from them.”

It shouldn’t be a surprise, therefore, that inside companies, those temples of words left unsaid, passwords include curses and even insults. “Everyday I sit opposite my superior, whom I hate — and I type, again and again, "fatidiot,"” says Amélie. “It might seem like nothing, but it feels good.”

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020


Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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