If you have ever felt pressured to purchase something online that very second, it turns out that may not be your fault. A recent study out of Princeton University sheds light on “dark patterns”, or deceptive marketing practices that websites use to manipulate online shoppers – to complete a sale or spend more money.1

According to the Financial Post, dark patterns are “devious online techniques that manipulate users in to doing things they might not otherwise choose to.” These tactics are equivalent to the display of impulse items near checkout in a brick-and-mortar store. Dark patterns deceive people into signing up for subscriptions and making unwanted purchases, which can be inconvenient or costly to the inattentive consumer.

The Financial Post uses ThredUp as an example. It is an online consignment store that uses messages such as “Alexandra from Anaheim just saved $222 on her order”. This is a pressure tactic to encourage to online shoppers to complete a purchase. The messages play on shoppers’ FOMO (fear of missing out). Here’s the thing: Alexandra probably doesn’t exist, and she probably didn’t save money on an order. The study determined that websites like ThreadUp randomly generate statements like this, from a list of names, places, and products, to manipulate consumer decisions.

The Princeton study “crawled” over 10,000 websites, and revealed evidence of several forms of dark patterns commonly deployed by retailers. “Confirmshaming,” for example, plays on people’s emotions to manipulate consumers: a consumer who doesn’t want to bundle additional items may have to click a button like “No thanks, I hate bargains.” Other strategies include concealing additional charges until checkout, sneaking additional products into user’s shopping carts, or displaying meaningless countdown timers to create a false sense of urgency.

Many of these dark patterns involve deceptive marketing messages or practices designed to exploit consumer vulnerability, bias, or inattention. Arvind Narayananan, one of the authors of the study, suggests that there be more transparency about the use of dark patterns so consumers are can be on the lookout.

Next time you’re shopping online and you see a pop-up, question whether Diane from Des Moines really exists, or whether there are really only two rooms left at that hotel.