Persuasion plays a big role in our interaction with the world and the people around us. We persuade our friends to watch our favorite movie with us and are persuaded to elect a new president. Some manipulations are benign, while others are well-thought-out psychological tricks to make easy money. With the rise of technology, methods of manipulation and persuasion are commonly used. From advertisements to get you to buy products that you weren’t necessarily looking for, to being kept in the dark from what the company promises you, these methods of manipulation are known as dark patterns.
As a clinical psychologist, I have a vested interest in teaching people how to not fall victim to exploitive marketing techniques. Using neuropsychology against unsuspecting victims, especially children, is unethical, damaging, and just plain wrong. That’s why I have a whole section on product marketing as a risk for screen use in Chapter 6 of Screen Time in the Mean Time: A Parenting Guide to Get Kids and Teens Internet Safe. If you haven’t covered this topic with your kids, you can get a hardcopy, e-book version, or audible version now on Amazon. Educating your kids, and yourself, about sneaky neuro-marketing techniques, will help you and your family members be smarter consumers!
What are dark patterns?
Dark patterns are persuasive techniques used by companies online to trick people into buying and signing up for things. These tricks are accomplished by exploiting human psychological processes so the company can maximize its profits. The term dark pattern was coined by Harry Brignull, a cognitive scientist. He describes dark patterns as, “A user interface that has been carefully crafted to trick users into doing things… they are not mistakes, they are carefully crafted with a solid understanding of human psychology, and they do not have the user’s interest in mind.”
Why do companies use dark patterns?
The internet is a business platform. To stay competitive, companies must have offers that set them apart. When you go online, everything fights for your attention, like the end-cap items at the grocery store that first attracts your attention. Product placement forces the customer to view more expensive merchandise on their way grab their everyday purchase. Online websites have similar methods of forcing users to see attractive products.
Dark patterns come in many different styles, all with the same intention of keeping the misleading strategy somewhat hidden. Sometimes, dark patterns can be illegal. Brignull says, “Many designers, and possibly even most, hate using dark patterns in their work, but they are forced to implement them by managers. These managers only care about one or two individual metrics, not the experience of the site or brand as a whole. So, a manager who is tasked with increasing the number of people who sign up for a company’s newsletter might order a website designer to use a dark pattern to capture email addresses, because it’s an easy short-term solution that doesn’t require any effort.”
Types of Dark Patterns
The following list of dark patterns can be found on Dr. Brignull’s website, darkpatters.org.
Bait & Switch
Companies advertising a ‘too good to be true’ price that is not stocked. By grabbing the customer’s attention, the chances of purchasing an alternatively higher-priced item go up.
This dark pattern is used when a company offers a free trial period. The company holds the customer responsible for unsubscribing from the free trial period, otherwise charging them for their subscription.
The company makes the interaction more difficult than it needs to be, with the intent to dissuade an action. For example, making unsubscribing from an email list or deleting a profile on social media difficult.
The company asks for your email or social media permission. The user is under the impression it will be used for a desirable outcome, like finding friends and connections. Instead, the company impersonates you and spams everyone on your contact list. For example, Linkedin was sued $13 million in 2015 for using this dark pattern.
On the last step of the checkout process, the company asks for additional and unexpected charges, like delivery or shipping charges. This method of manipulation is used to appear to the consumer they found a good price on an item compared to others.
A persuasive technique that focuses your attention on one thing to distract your attention from another. Turbo Tax famously used this tactic advertising free online tax filing, while making it difficult to find the actual free tax filing website.
Turbo Tax-Free or Turbo Tax Freedom
Turbo Tax is a company backed by the IRS giving people the option to file their taxes online for free. The company invests millions of dollars into commercials and advertisements claiming they will charge nothing to file your taxes. But the company has two separate options that most people are unaware of. The first option advertised is Turbo Tax-Free. This form of Turbo Tax is free only for people with a simple W-2 form. Once customers have purchased the product, they learn they’ll be $60 to $200 for any forms that deal with loans and mortgages. That moves what looks like a free service to an unexpected paid service.
Our GKIS favorite podcast Reply All covered dark patterns in episode #144. They reported that Turbo Taxes’ second option, known as Turbo Tax-Free File/Freedom, is not advertised and the link cannot be found on their website. Turbo Tax-Free File is income-based and free for people whose adjusted gross annual income is $66,000 or less. When the producers searched online for TurboTax Freefile/Freedom, Google offered two options, an orange button asking if you qualify or a blue button saying, “start for free.” Most people would choose the option of the blue button that offers a free tax filing. Choosing the blue button takes you back to Turbo Tax-Free, where only simple forms are free. Finding TurboTax Free File was only accessible through a link from IRS.gov.
Price Comparison Prevention
The retailer makes it hard for the user to compare the prices of an item with another item. This is done so the user can’t make an informed decision.
You are tricked into publicly sharing more information about yourself than you intended. This dark pattern was named after Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg. Facebook’s early years of development made it difficult for users to control their privacy settings and easy to overshare by mistake. Today, ‘privacy zuckering’ works more deviously, using data brokers to collect personal information that they sell to other companies. These are hidden in the ‘term and conditions’ of certain services you may use, giving the data broker permission to sell your personal data to anyone.
This design makes it very easy for you to get into a certain situation but then makes it hard for you to get out of it. For example, subscriptions tend to be easy to purchase, but when you want to close an account or delete a profile on social media, the company makes it difficult or impossible.
Sneak into Basket
You attempt to purchase something, but somewhere in the purchasing journey, the site sneaks an additional item into your basket.
You respond to a question, which when glanced upon quickly, appears to ask one thing. But if read carefully, asks for another thing entirely.
Fear of Missing Out
This dark pattern technique is made to look like the item you’re thinking of purchasing is in high demand, pressuring you to make the decision quickly. Examples include a reminder of the number of people looking also at the specific item. The marketing technique of scarcity will alert you, “Only 3 left!” Booking hotel rooms, airplane flights, and merchandise on Amazon use this persuasive tactic to trigger your urgency and thus increase sales.
How to Avoid Being Victimzed by Dark Patterns
In Dr. Bennett’s book Screen Time in the Mean Time she writes, “Due to screen technology, this generation of children are more marketed to than any other children in history. Why? Because there’s BIG money in child and teen products. If you can’t see the product, you are the product.” In her private practice, she offers tips for families so they can help their kids be educated consumers and identify tricky dark patterns. She finds these tools particularly helpful for kids and adults who play video games, watch Youtube, or online shop. If you’d like this teaching tool for your kids, check out at our How to Spot Marketing Red Flag Supplement.
I’m the mom psychologist who will help you GetKidsInternetSafe.
Onward to More Awesome Parenting
Tracy S. Bennett, Ph.D.
Mom, Clinical Psychologist, CSUCI Adjunct Faculty
Free photo 4993523 © Elliot Westacott – Dreamstime.com
Flickr- by Tony DeCruz
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Screen shot- Andrew Weissmann
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 Theverge.com Dark Patterns: inside the interfaces designed to trick you By Harry Brignull
 90percentofeverything.com by Harry Brignull
 Fastcompany.com Why Dark Patterns Won’t Go Away ByJohn Brownlee
 Gimlet Replyall #144 dark patterns
 Gimlet Replyall #144 dark patterns
 Npr.org Firms are Buying, Sharing your online info. What can you do about it? By: Brian Naylor
 Darkpatterns.org Privacy Zuckering By Harry Brignull
 Infimum.co Dark Patterns Designs That Pull Evil Tricks on Our Brains By Ana Valjak