Do I still have free choice on the Internet? Psychologists in the marketing department.

Blog  — Tue 31 Jan 2023

European consumer regulators, such as the Dutch ACM, recently published research results about "dark patterns". It concluded that 148 of the 399 websites surveyed used them. That's nearly 40% of a relatively small number of websites surveyed. While this trend is still growing.

What were dark patterns again?

Dark patterns is a collective term for steps that website owners can take to influence visitors. And thus steering them, so to speak. Often to the advantage of the owner and thus to the disadvantage of the visitor.

A concrete example is a screen with two buttons. One button is colored completely green. The other blends into the background color and has only a very light and thin colored border. It seems like a detail that doesn't matter much. Yet it has been found that the average visitor, when confronted with (quick) choices, will click on the large green button.

Being functionally and commercially guided

Design-wise, there is nothing wrong with guiding people. If it is helpful. For example, it is nice if the button to log in stands out more than the button to reset a password. At everyday speed, this often helps. Less pleasant, however, is when this help becomes commercial rather than functional. An example of this is neuromarketing, a marketing component aimed at using the human psyche. In order to steer toward maximum sales.

This is not very new. Any product that doesn't cost 10 euros but 9.99 is a form of neuromarketing. Yet dark patterns go a little further. Although it has its origins in coloring, nowadays it is a catch-all term for more tricks in the arsenal of digital marketing departments. These departments are also increasingly hiring psychologists to maximize this arsenal.

Checking out with a figurative gun to the head

By dark patterns, consider also, for example, the countdown clock on a hotel website. This gives you the impression that the offer expires today, in just a few minutes. If you're not quick, you'll miss out on the offer. The same page can also give the impression that there are 10 other visitors looking at the exact same hotel room at the same time. You're about to miss out on your city trip with your girlfriend, it seems. And so you run to your credit card and book in a hurry, before someone else takes that chance away from you. Right?

Increasingly, websites are directing visitors based on dark pattern tricks. It can be appreciated that this trickery is now a blip on the radar of consumer regulators such as the ACM. Technical possibilities make psychological influencing more effective than ever before. And while it is often still a gray area, it doesn't grace websites at all. However, it will be difficult to draw up and enforce good laws and regulations. This was evident with the cookie law, which ironically also uses dark patterns heavily today.