Consumers Must Learn To Spot Manipulative Practices Online

Jalene Hahn |

I am a big fan of behavioral science. In 2008, Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein published their much- acclaimed book “Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness.” They researched and documented ways to positively nudge good behavior. In 2019, Professor Sunstein followed this up with “Sludge: What Stops Us from Getting Things Done and What to Do About It.” Sludge highlights things that cause friction for consumers. Sludge can be either unintentional or intentional.

Unintentional sludge can be the result of poor design or poor communication. One example is the process for applying for financial aid. If you have ever had to complete a FAFSA—or the Free Application for Federal Student Aid—you know what I am talking about. The form is complicated and easy to misunderstand. Filling out applications for financial aid at various universities can be daunting. I like to believe that these processes are unintentional sludge. The result is that a large segment of the population has difficulty completing the financial aid process making college completion more difficult.

In addition to poor design and confusing communication, sludge can be attributed to psychological barriers of social stigma, shame or embarrassment. One example of reducing these barriers was in 2008 when the U.S. Food Stamp program was replaced by SNAP, which stands for Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, and the physical food stamps were replaced by much more discreet electronic benefits cards.

Intentional sludge is more nefarious. In 2010, Harry Brignull coined the term “dark pattern” as “a user interface that has been carefully crafted to trick users into doing things, such as buying insurance with their purchase or signing up for recurring bills.” A Princeton research study published in 2019, “Dark Patterns at Scale,” identified 15 types of dark patterns within seven categories. It also identifies the cognitive biases and heuristics that the sludge taps into. The study found the dark patterns were “covert, deceptive and information hiding in nature.”

For example, when I am shopping online, I often encounter notices that there are limited quantities of an item I am looking at or that so many other people are looking at a hotel I’m considering. These notices are designed to create a sense of urgency or scarcity. Opting out of a subscription or canceling a service requires trying to find a way to cancel and confirming multiple messages that you do indeed want to cancel. I have one company that I ordered something from, and they put me on their email list. To get off the email list, I must notify them in writing—snail mail to a particular address. How much friction does that involve? Paper, envelope, stamp, mailbox … 

Defining sludge can be difficult. Some sludge is easily identifiable. In other instances, sludge is user dependent. Some processes are just easier for some to navigate, while others will struggle. Innovative consultants are developing “sludge audits.” As consumers become savvier, companies will decide to adapt and become more transparent. A recent example of a policy shift comes from Netflix announcing it will now contact inactive users, and if the company receives no response within two weeks, Netflix will automatically cancel their service.

Academics, consumer advocates and policy makers will define intentional sludge. Debate will center around the line between clever persuasion and wrongful manipulation. In the meantime, we as consumers will need to become more educated about our behavioral biases and how to spot online manipulation. On his website,, Brignull recommends the use of Twitter to raise awareness and call out specific examples. He encourages you to use “Mention @darkpatterns or use the hashtag #darkpattern” to “retweet, quote and favourite other people’s tweets about Dark Patterns, @mention the offending brands and tell them what you think about their practices, when you see a Dark Pattern, take screenshots and tweet it.”

Bringing these manipulative and harmful practices to light will help all of us protect ourselves.