A new study from Princeton reveals how shopping websites use 'dark patterns' to trick you into buying things you didn't actually want

black friday shoppingEduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images

  • A new study from Princeton revealed that many online shopping sites use so-called "dark patterns" - manipulative design techniques intended to coerce customers into buying, even if it's something they don't actually want or need.
  • Researchers investigated over 10,000 sites, and found more than 1,200 e-commerce websites that manipulate customers by using fake customer testimonials, shaming customers who try to leave, and running a meaningless countdown clock.
  • Dark patterns are nothing new: Some iPhone apps have employed similar techniques to trick users into paying for subscriptions, and even Facebook has been accused of using dark patterns to get people to share data.
  • Today, Senators Mark Warner and held a hearing to discuss legislation that would ban the use of these dark patterns in websites with over 100 million monthly users.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Researchers at Princeton released a new study on how many online shopping sites use coercive so-called "dark pattern" techniques to trick people into spending more money.

"This is manipulating users into making decisions they wouldn't otherwise make and buying stuff they don't need," Gunes Acar, a research associate at Princeton who helped run the study, told Business Insider. "Showing a timer and saying you only have 5 minutes left - there's a sense of urgency that's questionable at best."

Acar and his team created a tool that crawled over 10,000 e-commerce sites. Ultimately, they found that more than 1,200 use "dark pattern" techniques to coerce customers into buying items or spending more time on their sites.

"This is definitely a lower limit," Acar added, since the tool focused more on text (like having the "cancel order" option say something like "no thanks, I don't like delicious food," on a delivery website, for example) and less on manipulative design.

In all, the study identified 15 ways that shopping websites manipulate and coerce customers, by making it difficult to cancel a purchase, shaming customers when they try to leave, and authoring fake testimonials, for example.

Many e-commerce sites work with third-party vendors to implement more manipulative designs. The study identified 22 of these vendors, noting two of them openly advertise their techniques.

The New York Times tried to replicate some of the study's results, and found that certain websites even went as far as to show that an apparently fake customer is actively buying the items you're looking at.

"'On one day this month...'Abigail from Albuquerque' appeared to buy more than two dozen items, including dresses in sizes 2, 4, 6 and 8," the Times wrote. Unfortunately, Abigail doesn't seem to exist, the Times reported - she was apparently made up to create social pressure, and reassure customers that a real person had also bought this item.

The concept of a dark pattern isn't unique to shopping, either: Scammers have taken advantage of similar techniques to trick people into purchasing iPhone app subscriptions, and even Facebook has been accused of using dark patterns to entice users into sharing contact information for their friends and family.

The Princeton study didn't focus on whether or not these techniques are working, but legislation introduced by Senators Mark Warner (D-VA) and Deb Fischer (R-NE) indicates that the concept is being taken seriously on Capitol Hill.

On Tuesday morning, the senators held a hearing to discuss the Deceptive Experiences To Online Users Reduction (DETOUR) Act, which would ban the use of these techniques on websites with over 100 million monthly users.

"These not only undermine the choices that are available to you on these platforms, but they also cost you money," said Katie McInnis, policy counsel at Consumer Reports, speaking at the hearing.

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