Blackhat Design: Weapons of Social Seduction

Written by Guido Jansen in
December 2016

Everyone working in (E-)commerce basically gets paid to get others to buy stuff. When talking to a salesman, you know you are being sold to and that is usually fine....

Everyone working in (E-)commerce basically gets paid to get others to buy stuff. When talking to a salesman, you know you are being sold to and that is usually fine.

Psychologists working in e-commerce have a bit of an unfair advantage though:

  • A lot of knowledge about human (buying) behaviour in general;
  • Huge amounts of customer data;
  • Lots of ways to customize/personalize the buying experience during all online touch-points.

In my work as a psychologist and conversion optimization specialist I help webshops implement these persuasive tactics in online marketing campaigns. But there is also an ethical responsibility to give the audiences of these organisations the tools to guard themselves against these techniques for when they are misused.

Should we ban these techniques?

Not possible:

1) It’s impossible to NOT persuade.

The way you dress yourself, the way you communicate, the way you present yourself on social media… You and everyone around you is always ‘selling’ someting. A product, an idea, themselves… And by doing so, we always use various techniques to convince others of something.

2) The techniques itself are not inherently good or bad.

But how it’s being used can cause an eerie feeling.

For example: we are very sensitive for ‘defaults’. When we need to make a choice (‘yes’ or ‘no’) but the dropdown is already set to one of those options, this makes it very likely more people will choose that options.

Famous example for this is the defaults set by countries when it comes to organ donations ():

From: Do defaults save lives?

Not a donor by default? Then it takes an effort to opt-in and become a donor. Like in The Netherlands, most people don’t become a donor in this case.

Donor by default? Then it takes an effort to opt-out. Like in Belgium, where most people don’t bother unregistering and most people are a donor.

If you use this deliberately to increase donors or get money for a good cause you might feel this is a acceptible way to nudge people to make choices that benefit society.

On the other hand, if EasyJet uses the same technique to set the defaults to cross-sell insurrance and a rental car when you buy a flight ticket this feels quite different.

So what can we do about it?

About these techniques being used: nothing. But we can educate ourselves to recognize them and use that information to make better decisions. Also: when organizations use them in a nasty way we can publicly shame them (;.

And this is what I’ve set out to do on this blog and for future presentations with “Blackhat.Design”: educate everyone about these principles so as a consumer you can more easily recognize them and we force organisations to use the techniques in a sensible way to make our society a better place.

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