You download the program and at the time of installation the client offers to subscribe to the mailing list. You don’t want it, so you spontaneously uncheck it. Except you didn’t read carefully: the little mention actually indicated that you should check the box to not receive the newsletter. Are you signed…
This inversion is a trap that goes by the name: dark pattern, a term that translates to “fake interface” or “custom trap”. In the field of digital design, a dark pattern is a mechanism built into the interface of a site that seeks to deceive the user: an ad that looks like two drops of water on the appearance of the site and attracts a click, a site that hides the unsubscribe option, etc. These scams have been criticized, but they are ubiquitous despite efforts to regulate them, as was the case in California, the first state to ban them, in 2021.
The task of the dark pattern is to lead the user to make a decision that he would not have made on his own, but without resorting to coercion. By exploiting our thought habits and our automatisms, such as the belief that “checking the box means accepting,” dark patterns act as deceptions and traps that distort our free will for commercial purposes. Under the influence of dark patterns, our choice is no longer ours. We are no longer autonomous in the sense that we no longer establish for ourselves, through reason, the law that guides our actions.
“Nudge”, an ancient practice
But these practices, unanimously accused of being manipulative, are not the only mechanisms in the digital age to achieve this goal. Nudge (an imperfect translation would be “nudge”), a concept theorized by lawyer Cass Sunstein and economist Richard Thaler, is also a method by which we push someone to make a decision they would not have made on their own. but without resorting to coercion. The solution to nudge is to interfere with the person’s “choice architecture”.
A very banal example: when I come to the store, the layout of the products on the counter will affect my interest and my desires. Of course, when it comes to organizing a shop counter, it seems trivial. It’s even good if you do the same thing, for example, in the dining room: by offering the most healthy foods at eye level, you encourage people to eat right, and not rush into fatty foods and sweets. A final example well known to men that benefits the community is the presence of a fake fly in the urinal to keep the toilets clean.
But take those casinos that never show the time: there are no clocks or windows, and permanent air conditioning prevents the player from being aware of the passage of time. The architecture of the player’s choice has been changed: he does not even realize that he has already spent many hours betting his money. ; his ability to use his mind to decide the best course of action is impaired.
The difference between influence and manipulation
In this way, the nudge wants to act on our desire at the root, inspire us with the desire to stay another hour in this casino or choose healthy food. Whereas the dark pattern reuses the nudge technique for a less ambitious goal, not to make us really want to receive this newsletter, but to push us into making a decision in spite of ourselves. Both cases, however, belong to a continuum of invisible actions designed to influence our free will. Are we to conclude that all these practices should be condemned? The point is that mild incitement becomes sinister manipulation.
The American philosopher Robert Noggle, a professor at the University of Michigan, became interested in this case. According to him, when we make decisions according to our own law, without being manipulated, our actions are directed towards an ideal that is truly ours (without anticipation of whether it is good or bad). However, manipulation consists in twisting our decisions so that they are no longer aimed at our own ideal… but at the ideal of the manipulator. By interfering with our beliefs, our desires, or our emotions, the manipulator makes us work for our cause and alienates us from ours. We believe that we follow our ideal, but we only follow it. Conversely, if I admire someone and put myself at their service because we have a common ideal, I am influenced but not manipulated because my ideal is the same as their ideal.
Let’s apply this distinction to dark patterns and bumps. Pushing raw vegetables at eye level is an influence that is not manipulative unless the user has an ideal opposite to that of a balanced diet. Otherwise it is. The criterion that allows us to identify the harmful mechanisms of digital technologies will be to always ask the question: do they force us to act contrary to our ideals?