Study: Almost every popular website or app manipulates users

BERLIN: Countdowns until a flash sale ends. The number of people currently looking at a hotel room. Hidden information about canceling an order.

So-called dark patterns are widespread on websites with anything to sell, and these psychological tricks to increase sales and retain users are being used by more and more companies of all sizes.

New research now shows that as many as 97% of the most popular websites and apps in Europe are trying to influence consumers’ decisions with psychological tricks and manipulative design elements.

According to a commissioned by the EU Commission, the most frequent dark pattern categories were hiding information to push users towards a certain choice, pre-selecting certain options, making cancellations difficult and forcing consumers to register.

Perhaps the most familiar example of a dark pattern is what happens when people are given the choice of whether or not they accept having their behavior tracked on a website.

The “accept all cookies” option is usually highlighted in a bright colour, making the button more inviting to click on. The button for better data protection is often gray or harder to find.

Countdown timers and notices of supposed time limits on price reductions are widespread on ecommerce platforms, while “nagging” is more common on health and fitness websites and apps.

“Such practices often operate in a blurred area between legitimate attempts at persuasion and illegitimate manipulation techniques,” the authors write.

Worryingly, the average consumer’s ability to recognise the use of these practices is “limited”, according to the study.

What’s more, dark patterns and manipulative personalization of websites can lead to consumers losing money, autonomy and privacy, in addition to causing cognitive distress and psychological harm.

The adverse effects on competition, price transparency and trust in the market are to be classified as a cause of concern.

The study was flanked by behavioral experiments that examined both the neurophysiological and psychological reactions to unfair practices and their effects on decision-making.

It turned out that practices such as “hidden information”, “playing with emotions” and “playing with emotions in combination with personalisation” can indeed influence decisions and override original preferences. Older people and people with a lower level of education are particularly affected.

In addition, the experiments showed that pop-ups (as an example of a “forced action in combination with personalisation”) increased the heart rate of the test persons and often triggered frustration in them.

Overall, however, there was insufficient evidence that the neurophysiological effects of dark patterns on consumers were significant. – dpa