Shining a Light on Dark Patterns

Privacy and Security, Innovation and Economic Growth, Networks, the Internet, and Cloud Computing, Internet and Search and Advertising

Article Snapshot


Jamie Luguri and Lior Strahilevitz


Journal of Legal Analysis, Vol. 13, pp. 43-109, 2021


Some user interfaces include “dark patterns” that exploit cognitive bias to manipulate users. Two experiments show that subtle dark patterns are more dangerous, because consumers are less likely to reject them.

Policy Relevance

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) should audit interfaces for dark patterns. Dark patterns violate laws against deceptive advertising.

Main Points

  • Some user interfaces are deliberately designed to exploit cognitive biases, confusing users into buying goods or services they do not want or into revealing personal information they would prefer not to disclose.
  • Two large-scale experiments show how consumers behave when exposed to dark patterns.
    • Users exposed to mild (subtle) dark patterns were more than twice as likely to sign up for a dubious service as those in the control group.
    • Users exposed to aggressive dark patterns became four times as likely to sign up.
  • The experiments invited consumers to purchase identity theft protection, and included the following design elements:
    • A screen inviting consumers to “accept and continue” or “other options.”
    • For the study of aggressive patterns, three screens of information on identity theft, which the consumer was required to read.
    • Confusing trick questions, such as "Are you sure you want to decline this free identity theft protection," with the options being "No, cancel," and "Yes."
  • Mild dark patterns engendered no backlash from consumers, and should be considered the most dangerous.
    • Aggressive dark patterns did generate backlash.
    • Well-educated consumers resisted mild dark patterns better than less educated consumers.
  • Dark patterns involving hidden information, trick questions, and obstruction were among the most effective in causing consumers to make decisions they later regretted or did not understand.
    • Loaded language and bandwagon effects were also effective.
    • “Must act now” messages were not effective if the service was costly.
  • Both experiments showed that dark patterns made consumers indifferent to the price of the service; interface design rather than cost drove the consumers’ decisions.
  • Judicial rulings show that dark patterns may violate federal or state laws barring the use of unfair or deceptive trade practices, and might vitiate consent under the common law of contracts.
    • Advertisements disguised as news or consumer feedback are deceptive.
    • Falsely informing consumers that their computers were infected with malware is deceptive.
  • The Federal Trade Commission should audit interfaces for dark patterns.
    • “A-B testing” can identify dark patterns so manipulative they should be considered illegal, as well as being used to maximize profits.
    • In these tests, many consumers are exposed to designs identical except for one element, allowing the elements that yield the strongest consumer response to be identified.

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