How Hackers Think | Weatherhead School at Case Western Reserve University

How Hackers Think

A Mixed Method Study of Mental Models and Cognitive Patterns of High-Tech Wizards

PhD Dissertation Defense: Timothy C. Summers


Hackers account for enormous costs associated with computer intrusion in a world increasingly reliant on computer and Internet-based technologies.  In the general sense, a hacker is a technologist with a love for technology and a hack is an inventive solution executed through non-obvious means.  They speak the language of code which propels the evolution of our information technology.  This makes hackers the solvers of our largest, most complex issues.  They seek out weaknesses in computers and networks that can be used to steal data or impact the functionality of the entire Internet.  In consequence, they are experts at solving poorly understood and challenging problems in a variety of settings requiring deep understanding of technical details and imagination. 

Hacking is an activity that requires exceptional cognitive abilities.  Through explanatory, sequential mixed methods research completed over three empirical studies, I discover how the mental models and the cognitive skills and traits of skilled hackers affect the way they learn and perform forward thinking.  Proficient hackers construct mental representations of complex systems and their components.  As they learn and interact with the system, their mental models evolve and become more reliable.  This research reveals that hackers use these continuously evolving cognitive structures to conceive of future results through speculative forecasting.  These models are instrumental in setting the hacker’s expectations about effects of actions, planning of actions, and ways of interpreting feedback.

This dissertation makes theoretical and empirical contributions to the literature on the mental models and cognitive faculties of hackers and practice through the development of evidence-based and research-informed strategies for improving the cognitive mechanisms necessary for hacking.  The findings will be useful for leaders and managers in private, government, and nonprofit sectors with an interest in the advanced thinking required for cybersecurity and innovation.  Additionally, this research contributes to the development of strategies for developing and managing effective hackers and improving talent identification and recruitment performance.  It can serve as the foundation for the development of a training platform that improves the cognitive abilities necessary for effective hacking.

Fee: No

Contact Information:
Marilyn A. Chorman
Associate Director, Doctor of Management Program


Tuesday, Feb. 17, 2015 from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.
Peter B. Lewis Building Room 118
11119 Bellflower Road
Cleveland, OH 44106-7235
United States
Speaker(s): Timothy C. Summers, PhD Candidate in Management: Designing Sustainable Systems


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