The Mind of a Hacker: What Makes Them Tick?

There’s a reason why actors like Hugh Jackman, Keanu Reeves, and Rami Malek play hackers on the silver screens. It’s because hackers – in real life and movies – are undeniably 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.

think like a hacker

 Black Hat Attributes

To begin with, black hat hackers require a keen interest in and talent for many aspects of information technology, including programming, scripting, networking, and virtualization. 

Even before developing those skills, black hat hackers need a few specific personality traits to succeed in their chosen illegal field.


For black hat hackers, weaseling their way into a critical database is a rush, especially if they 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 the tiring, challenging 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, searching for novel ways to defeat cybersecurity defenses and get into places in which they do not belong.


There are so many potential vulnerabilities out there it’s impossible to come close to quantifying; however, generally speaking, any weakness a cybersecurity team has already thought of or dealt with is not going to work. 

So, successful malicious intrusions can’t rely on a checklist; they need 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. They found that the leading quality specifically correlated with code-breaking ability is called systemizing – the drive to build and understand systems, which for this purpose is anything that has underlying rules that govern behavior, not just computer systems.

Though a hacker’s stereotype may be of someone obsessed with technology and little else, many hackers have a wide field of interest when it comes to the way things work.

A Willingness to Break the Law

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 its results are crimes – 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, of the same technical skills and aptitudes black hat hackers have; many of the top white hat hackers were once 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 make them who they are.

These include:

An Unwillingness to Break the Law

It had to start here. White hat hackers enjoy the high of a new intrusion and cracking systems as much as black hat hackers; however, they want to make their money protecting organizations instead of potentially destroying them. 

This distinct 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.


To do what they do at a high level, white hat hackers need to understand how developers, cybersecurity professionals, and black hat hackers think. 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. Still, 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.

To learn more about the University of Miami Cybersecurity Professional Bootcamp, fill out the form below to get in touch with our advisors.

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