Dark Patterns: How Are you Being Tricked?

You give a social media platform permission to contact everyone in your contact list (whether they are part of that platform already or not) and invite them to contact you. What ends up happening is that all these contacts now get endless spam e-mails from this social platform, and they don’t know why. This is known as Friend Spam. Or, you have signed up for a free trial, want to cancel it after its duration (say, one month), but find it almost impossible to get out of this subscription and end up paying membership for several months for a service you only wanted to use for free. Sounds familiar, right? These “tricks” are known as dark patterns. They’re used to trick people into doing things - things they wouldn’t do if they understood the true outcome. They’re carefully designed to manipulate people by taking advantage of quirks of the human mind. The outcome could be seemingly harmless, like unwittingly subscribing to a newsletter, or really questionable, like adding extra charges to a customer’s order without their knowledge. Some of the dark patterns lie in between with regards to severity. In this article, we will be discussing a few of these dark patterns, why they work and how you can protect yourself from them.

Fake Scarcity The term scarcity refers to the possibility of there being more demand than supply of a certain item. This can change your behaviour in the following ways: it might increase the price you are willing to pay for the item, or, you will forego longer term deliberation for an immediate purchase, as you are scared the item might otherwise be gone and you are left with the regret of having missed out. This dark pattern simply keeps pushing you to buy NOW, by showing you how many others have already bought it (high demand = high value), by emphasizing how little product they have left (high demand = scarcity), or how many people are looking at this item now (high demand = competition). Often, these numbers aren’t actually true and can be generated by a randomisation algorithm employed by the company. You might literally see completely different numbers upon refreshing the page. Odd that. To get rid of the influence of this dark pattern make sure you check what the numbers of scarcity are based on. Don’t panic because you think you’ll never be able to buy this product again. There always tend to be plenty of other sellers who will sell a similar enough product. True scarcity hardly exists in today’s commodity market. Especially the online market. Key terms that work with this dark pattern are FOMO (fear of missing out), Low-Stock Messages and High-Demand Messages.

Time Pressure Very much like fake scarcity, which focusses on the quantity available, companies can also manipulate the time you have to buy a certain product. The emphasis can be on how little time there is left before the deal runs out, and you will be stuck having to pay the original (much higher) price for the item. Again, this will trigger a sense of urgency and panic, not allowing for careful deliberation of the usefulness of purchasing the product at hand. This creates the likelihood of you purchasing the product, even when the price reduction offered is not steep enough to increase the frenzy of buying now. Time pressure need not only apply to you purchasing a product, they can also refer to notifications you keep getting to use an app or a service as you have a limited amount left to play a game, reach a level, have choice of compliance rather than forced compliance (default) etc. The emphasis is very much on the NOW, at the cost of taking a longer time to deliberate (and potentially figure out you really don’t need this product or service). To get rid of the influence of this pattern, just take a deep breath and give yourself time. The anxiety to act NOW will fade once you allow deliberation processes to kick in. Give yourself time, deliberate and probably save yourself some money on an unnecessary purchase! Key terms that work with this dark pattern are Countdown Timers, Limited-Time Messages and “Made you look” (push) notifications.

Hidden Costs There are many services which lure you in with low prices (or even being free) to then charge you a lot more when you are trying to check out. Suddenly a plethora of additional costs have been added. Examples of these additional costs are (international) shipping, VAT, other taxes, packaging or administration costs. This is the dark pattern known as hidden costs. You are already so far into the purchase that by stage you are committed. And although really annoyed by the additional costs, the sunken cost fallacy might be steep enough for you to continue the purchase. At least, that’s what the dark pattern user is counting on! But the pattern doesn’t need to be so literal as to hide costs immediately. In the introduction I mentioned signing up to a free trial. Well, those trials can come with hidden subscriptions. The trial doesn’t just end after its designated time (often a month). No, the service provision simply keeps going, without notifying you. The only notification you will get is a monetary deduction on your bank account statement, alerting you to the fact that you are still using it. You have effectively been forced to continue with the subscription due to unawareness. Not very consumer friendly, is it? Now if you have become aware of this and try to stop your subscription, you might still run into plenty of problems. Some services are very easy to sign up to, and almost impossible to sign out of. Their site might simply not indicate how to cancel a subscription, or might make it very hard to find. Or the procedure might seem very easy: you just have to send them an e-mail to cancel the subscription, but they never reply. Easiest way of getting rid of this type of subscription is cancelling the automatic debit via your bank. Key terms that work with this dark pattern are Hidden Costs, Hidden Subscription, Forced Continuity and Roach Motel.

These are the three categories we are starting this mini-series off on. Keep in mind that most of these dark patterns are most definitely deliberate, based on misdirection and misinformation and are, of course, for the benefit of the person/company tricking you. So consumer be wary! It should also be mentioned that this mini-series is being written for BrainyTab, a browser extension that shows you Behavioural Science concepts explained every time you open a new tab. They cover topics such as Cognitive Biases, Behaviour Change Techniques, Mental Models and of course these Dark Patterns! It's free, takes 5 seconds to install and it replaces your default new tab with useful stuff. Get is here: http://bit.ly/3a5OjAf

I hope you found this article enjoyable and stay tuned for the next article to be released on the 3rd of April, talking about three additional categories of dark patterns trying to trick you!

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©2018 by Merle van den Akker