Dark Patterns: How websites manipulate our user behaviour

A product added quickly at the end of the ordering process, a particularly highlighted button, a reproachful message because a discount was refused, a subscription that can be ordered in the blink of an eye but is almost impossible to cancel - these are the so-called "dark patterns".

Many websites, apps, social media or search engines use technical means to influence our behaviour so that we click, buy, subscribe or even reveal personal data.

How do you recognise these manipulation techniques and how can you avoid them? Because: "Dark Patterns" are not (yet) fundamentally prohibited in Europe.

How online shops mislead consumers into making purchases

Marketing strategies like "dark patterns" take advantage of human characteristics. They play on tendencies such as convenience, greed or vanity and trick consumers with additional services or "free" gifts. Some examples:

  • At the end of the booking or ordering process, an additional service or product is added that consumers do not actually want. In order to avoid cancelling the process and starting again, they pay the additional amount, which is usually affordable. Examples: Check-in luggage for a flight, express shipping when ordering goods, rental fees for bed sheets and towels when booking a holiday.
  • It is mentioned that you only have to spend a little more money to enjoy other extras. Examples: Additional insurance, free products, discount codes.
  • A supposedly "important message" appears on the screen - but at second glance it is merely an advertisement. Example: "Your order has been delivered."
  • A reproachful-sounding message appears when the order has been cancelled or a discount or product suggestion has been rejected. Consumers are supposed to feel ashamed of their decision after receiving the message. This is called confirmshaming. Examples: "That's too bad!", "Your shopping basket feels empty. Do you need some inspiration?", "No thanks, I hate bargains, I'd rather pay full price."
  • Inaccurate wording mislead consumers. Negative statements or double negations lead users to understand the opposite and select something they actually want to decline. Example: "I don't want to miss a newsletter".
  • Prominent slogans or pop-ups suggest increased demand and the supposed need to make a quick decision to buy, otherwise the bargain is gone. Examples: "Only 1 product left available at this price on our site", "Limited time offer", "5 people are looking at the item right now."
  • The shopping basket already automatically contains one or more products that must first be deleted if you do not want to order them.
  • Customer reviews or videos from influencers praise the products. These testimonials are particularly positive.

How consumers are tricked into unwanted subscriptions

  • A pop-up window advertises a free promotional product and asks for credit card information. This is usually a hidden paid subscription with monthly or annual fees charged to the credit card.
  • An item is offered at a special price. If you order at this price, you also sign up for a membership.
  • The shop offers regular deliveries of a product or similar products, which supposedly saves money. Here it is not only questionable if these products are all needed, but also how and when the subscription ends.

7 tips to avoid being tricked by manipulation techniques

  • Check whether an offer is still worthwhile despite cost increases. Compare prices on different websites.
  • Don't be pressured by statements such as "Only one item left in stock".
  • Compare your needs with the offer. This will help you avoid over-consumption.
  • Check the reservation or order once again point by point before you conclude it. Delete unwanted items/options/services.
  • Read the checkboxes and options carefully.
  • Remember that you may have the right of withdrawal and therefore 14 days to change your mind.
  • Check the cancellation periods, for more information see our page: What is an online subscription and how can I cancel it (evz.de)

How websites collect personal data from their users

Be careful when a website or social network ...

  • promise a better service if location tracking is switched on.
  • set accounts by default so that personal data and entries are visible to everyone.
  • set the cookie option to "Accept All" as the default choice and highlight it in colour.
  • a pop-up window appears and the email address needs to be entered in order to receive a gift or additional information.

These techniques all have only one goal: to obtain consumers' personal data. This data can be resold and is particularly valuable for targeted marketing. From the place of residence and user behaviour, it is possible to deduce which advertising might be interesting for which user.

What are the legal regulations regarding "dark patterns" in the EU?

So far, there is neither a standard definition of "dark patterns" nor an explicit regulation at EU level. However, the manipulative marketing strategies are subject to different directives and regulations from the sectors of competition law, consumer law, data protection law and artificial intelligence.

Some practices can be considered unfair business methods. This is the case when a product promoted as "free" has to be paid for or when attractive prices are advertised for items that are not available.

The European Commission is working to stop this and similar practices on the internet:

  • According to the new Consumer Agenda, it wants to take action against "dark patterns".
  • The fight against manipulative websites is a priority in its Action Plan 2020-2025.
  • The Digital Services Act ("DAS") and the Digital Markets Act ("DMA") restrict the collection of personal data and the use of dark patterns.
  • On 16 May 2022, the European Commission published a "Behavioural Study on Unfair Commercial Practices on the Internet". It proposes a ban on practices that severely disadvantage consumers. Furthermore, business people could be forced to use a fair or neutral design. Guidelines with practical examples would be developed for this purpose.
  • The new ePrivacy Regulation on respect for privacy in electronic communications also deals with the topics of "dark patterns", direct marketing and the use of cookies.

Until the legal framework has been adapted, data protection authorities can check whether traders are violating data protection regulations. In Germany, there are data protection commissioners at both federal and state level who can check authorities or companies with regard to the processing of personal data. In some areas, there are specific supervisory authorities, such as the Broadcasting Data Protection Commissioner.

Various European data protection authorities regularly publish recommendations, studies and guidelines to inform consumers:

  • In the Netherlands, the "Autoriteit Consument & Markt" has put together guidelines for web designers and developers. Illustrative examples explain what is permitted or prohibited.
  • In Great Britain, a market study on online trade and the digital advertising market was conducted by the "Competition & Markets Authority".
  • France conducted an awareness campaign on online fraud to protect consumers better against it. A research group promoted and sold a product in a specially created online shop using the same strategies as online scammers. Consumers who fell for the "scam" were informed about the background of the project and received further information.

Funded by the European Union. Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the European Innovation Council and Small and Medium-sized Enterprises Executive Agency (EISMEA). Neither the European Union nor the granting authority can be held responsible for them.