How Worried Should Consumers Be About “Dark Patterns?”

The concern is about nudge tactics online sellers use to steer buyer behaviors.

Posted Jul 01, 2019

This past week, a group of computer scientists from Princeton University released a widely publicized study with potentially ominous results for consumers. The study was about the prevalence of what user experience designer Harry Brignull has called “dark patterns.” In their study, the researchers defined dark patterns as, “user interface design choices that benefit an online service by coercing, steering, or deceiving users into making decisions that, if fully informed and capable of selecting alternatives, they might not make.”

Dark patterns are common on online retailers’ websites

The study included a wide variety of dark patterns used by retailers, from not revealing certain mandatory charges until just before purchase to creating perceptions of scarcity by showing low stock availability, to using false testimonials and sales information prominently on the website. As you can see from the definition and examples, the dark patterns concept overlaps quite a bit with the nudge concept that I’ve written about before.

Computer code/ Markus Spiske/ Unsplash
Source: Computer code/ Markus Spiske/ Unsplash

There’s a lot to unpack in this study, including the definition of the dark patterns concept, the question of whether all dark patterns are nudges or not, and the complicated ethical issues behind dark patterns. This is far more than what we can deal with in one blog post. In this post, I want to home in on the study’s main finding and consider the extent to which it should alarm those of us who shop online regularly.

The main finding of the Princeton computer scientists’ study was that of the over 11,000 shopping websites they analyzed, 11.1% had at least one dark pattern woven into its design. In pure numbers, this means over twelve hundred of the most popular online retail sites try to manipulate shopper behavior by explicitly implementing one or more questionable tactics. What’s more, the researchers noted that even this significant number is likely to be an underestimate because they only focused on retailers and only analyzed text data from the sites. As behavioral economics research has shown, images can be far more potent in influencing shopper behaviors than text.

So how concerned should we be about the use of dark patterns by retailers? There are two diametrically opposing schools of thought that provide completely different answers to this question based on their model of the consumer. We will call them the surveillance capitalism and adaptation-reactance schools here.

The Surveillance Capitalism School of Thought

The surveillance capitalism perspective comes from the pessimistic, and frankly frightening, view expounded by business professor Shoshana Zuboff in her recent popular book of the same name. According to Professor Zuboff:

“Surveillance capitalism unilaterally claims human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioral data. Although some of these data are applied to service improvement, the rest are declared as a proprietary behavioral surplus, fed into advanced manufacturing processes known as ‘machine intelligence’, and fabricated into prediction products that anticipate what you will do now, soon, and later. Finally, these prediction products are traded in a new kind of marketplace that I call behavioral futures markets. Surveillance capitalists have grown immensely wealthy from these trading operations, for many companies are willing to lay bets on our future behavior.”

The surveillance capitalism perspective is that dark pattern tactics become better and more effective as retailers use them because they are based on technologies that learn and evolve. For instance, by recording and analyzing how customers responded to a particular type of scarcity restriction (e.g., claiming that an offer is available for a limited time), retailers will be able to create even more effective types of scarcity messages. According to this view, consumers are mostly passive and powerless entities, ripe for exploitation by sophisticated technologies.

The Adaptation-Reactance School of Thought

The other, polar opposite adaptation-reactance school of thought is based in decades of social psychology research. The basic idea behind it is that when shoppers are repeatedly exposed to the same nudge, its effect decreases.

Shopping/ Artem Beliaikin Belart/ Unsplash
Source: Shopping/ Artem Beliaikin Belart/ Unsplash

For instance, if I go to a shoe seller’s site and see the “Buy Now! Only two left in stock” warning every single time, it’s not going to mean much. I will say to myself, “they must have forgotten to update their information” or “they’re trying to trick me.” This is adaptation at work. The other process is reactance. As the awareness of the retailer’s use of dark patterns and its intentions to manipulate grows, consumers will push back vigorously and thwart these efforts. One survey done in the UK found that by research firm Trinity McQueen found that:

“Two thirds of the British public (65 percent) interpreted examples of scarcity and social proof claims used by hotel booking websites as sales pressure. Half said they were likely to distrust the company as a result of seeing them (49 percent). Just one in six (16 percent) said they believed the claims.” These statistics are consistent with consumers pushing back. The study’s author warned companies that “consumers are becoming wise to your nudge” with the obvious implication that retailers need to be judicious and sparing in using influence tactics.


So, where does this leave us? As online shoppers, should we be worried about how widely prevalent dark patterns of manipulation are among the most popular online retail sites, and their inevitable ability to become more powerful and manipulative with each passing day? Or should we trust in our ability to adapt and push back and counteract their effects? Will we still be able to make smart shopping decisions, or will we end up being tricked and cheated? It all depends on which consumer model you subscribe to, one of passive acceptance and rote response to stimuli, or one of volitional active information processing, inference-making, and considered action.