By Linda Wasner Andrews, published on January 1, 2002 - last reviewed on June 13, 2012
The random catchphrase that accesses your e-mail account may unlock your psyche as well as your correspondence, according to British psychologist Helen Petrie, Ph.D., who proclaims the computer password "a 21st century Rorschach inkblot test." Petrie, a professor of human/computer interaction at City University in London, analyzed the responses of 1,200 Brits who participated in a survey funded by CentralNic, an Internet domain-name company. The results were recently published on CentralNic's Web site.
Petrie identified four password "genres." "Family-oriented" respondents numbered nearly half of those surveyed. These people select their own name or nickname, the name of a child, partner or pet, or a birth date. They tend to be occasional computer users and have strong family ties. "They choose passwords that symbolize people or events with emotional value," says Petrie. One third of respondents were "fans," using the names of athletes, singers, movie stars, fictional characters or sports teams. Petrie says fans are young and want to ally themselves with the lifestyle represented by a celebrity. Two of the most popular names were Madonna and Homer Simpson. Eleven percent of responses were from "fantasists." Petrie says their interest in sex is evident in passwords such as "sexy," "stud" and "goddess." "Traditionally, these individuals are male, but 37 percent of fantasists identified themselves as female," Petrie proclaims. The final ten percent of participants are "cryptics," because they pick unintelligible passwords or a random string of letters, numerals and symbols, such as Jxa+157. Petrie says cryptics are the most security-conscious group. They tend to make the safest but least interesting choices.
Passwords are inadvertently revealing for two reasons. First, they are generated on the spot. "Since you're focused on getting into the system, you're likely to put down something that comes readily to mind," says Petrie. "In this sense, passwords tap into things that are just below the surface of consciousness, much the way Rorschach and word-association tests do. Also, to remember your password you pick something that will stick in your mind. You may unconsciously choose something of particular emotional significance."