- About one in 10 retail sites are using “dark pattern” strategies to psychologically “exploit” shoppers and deceive them into spending more money online, a new study finds.
- “Dark pattern” tactics include sneaking items into carts before checkout, displaying countdown timers for expiring deals, and claiming low stock on certain items.
- Out of all the “dark patterns” that the study discovered, “the majority are covert, deceptive, and information-hiding in nature,” researchers wrote. “Further, many patterns exploit cognitive biases.”
- We summarize many of the “dark pattern” strategies below.
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Retailers are using tactics known as “dark patterns” to psychologically “exploit” shoppers and deceive them into spending more money online, according to a new study.
The study, by researchers at Princeton University and the University of Chicago, examined 53,000 product pages on 11,000 websites.
The researchers found that about one in 10 sites employ “dark patterns,” such as sneaking items into carts before checkout, displaying countdown timers for expiring deals, and claiming low stock on certain items.
Tactics like these can be effective by creating a sense of scarcity and “shaming” customers into making certain choices that benefit the retailer, the researchers wrote.
The strategies can also veer into questionable territory. In some cases, the researchers found instances of fake countdown clocks (refreshing the site would restart the timer) and unsubstantiated claims of low inventory.
Out of all the “dark patterns” that the study discovered, “the majority are covert, deceptive, and information-hiding in nature,” researchers wrote. “Further, many patterns exploit cognitive biases.”
Here are several tactics that researchers caught retailers employing to get shoppers to spend more money, according to the study.
- Sneaking items or charges into shopping carts. The researchers discovered seven sites sneaking additional products into shopping carts without users’ consent and five sites revealing previously undisclosed charges moments before checkout. Examples of extra charges include “service fees” or “handling costs.” This “exploits the sunk cost fallacy cognitive bias: users are likely to feel so invested in the process that they justify the additional charges by completing the purchase to not waste their effort,” the researchers wrote.
- Signing shoppers up for a “hidden subscription.” Thirteen sites charged users a recurring fee under the pretense of a one-time fee or free trial, the study found. Shoppers often become aware of hidden subscriptions after they are already charged by them, the researchers said.
- Using countdown timers and limited-time messages. 361 sites used countdown timers indicating that a deal or discount would expire. Of those, 140 sites used “deceptive” timers, meaning either the timers reset after timeout or the deals remained valid even after the timer reset. Researchers also found that 84 sites used other messaging to warn users that a deal would expire, without specifying a deadline. “These dark patterns create a potent ‘fear of missing out’ effect,” researchers wrote.
- Activity messages and testimonials. 264 sites informed shoppers of real-time activity on a website, such as the number of recent purchases or views of a specific product. Of those, 20 sites used “deceptive” activity displays by using strategies like random number generators to provide false information, according to the study. 12 sites used customer testimonials with vague origins.
- Messages indicating low stock or high demand. 581 sites informed shoppers that limited quantities of products were available. In one case, the inventory numbers appeared to be randomly generated. In several other cases, the inventory numbers appeared to decrease according to a set schedule.
- Misdirection. This strategy involves using trick questions; “pressured selling,” or pressuring a buyer to choose more expensive items; and “confirmshaming,” or steering users away from making a choice by using prompts like “Yes! I’d like the discount” and “No thanks, I like full price.” More than 250 sites used misdirection tactics.
- Obstruction. 31 sites used obstruction strategies to make it easy for users to sign up for something that is difficult to cancel.
- Forced enrollment. Six sites forced shoppers to create accounts or share information before they could complete a task.
The Wall Street Journal earlier reported on the study.
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