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How Dark Paterns Trick Users into Giving up Personal Data

Research. Dark patterns are increasingly common on digital platforms including social media websites, shopping websites, mobile apps, and video game. The design is everything from annoying to deceiving. New report from Princeton University on how to trick users into giving up personal data.

When we are online browsing our smartphones, computers or tablets so-called user interface design choices steer or deceive us into making unintended and potentially harmful decisions. These interface design choices are called dark patterns and often they lead us into making decisions that – if we had been fully informed and capable of selecting alternatives – we would might not make. A new research paper from Princeton University  sheds light on this. It reveals that dark patterns are increasingly common on digital platforms including social media websites, shopping websites, mobile apps, and video games – and that this comes with a price:

At best, dark patterns annoy and frustrate users. At worst, they can mislead and deceive users, e.g., by causing financial loss, tricking users into giving up vast amounts of personal data, or inducing compulsive and addictive behavior in adults and children”, the authors reveal.

According to the research paper prior work has provided taxonomies to describe the existing types of dark patterns, but this paper sets out to make a large-scale evidence documenting the prevalence and make a systematic and descriptive investigation of how the different types of dark patterns harm users.

Therefore the paper contains a lot of examples of dark patters. Three of them are:

  • Urgency dark patters: “refers to the category of dark patterns that impose a deadline on a sale or deal, thereby accelerating user decision-making and purchases. Urgency dark patterns exploit the scarcity bias in users—making discounts and offers more desirable than they would otherwise be, and signaling that inaction would result in losing out on potential savings. These dark patterns create a potent “fear ofmissing out” effect particularly when combined with the “Scarcity” and Social Proof” dark patterns“.
  • Confirmshaming dark patterns: “uses language and emotion to steer users away from making a certain choice. Confirmshaming appeared most often in popup dialogs that solicited users’ email addresses in exchange for a discount, where the option to decline the offer—which the website did not want users to select—was framed as a shameful choice. Examples of such framing included “No thanks, I like paying full price”, “No thanks, I hate saving money”, and “No thanks, I hate fun & games”.
  • Hidden Subscription dark patterns: “charges users a recurring fee under the pretense of a one-time fee or a free trial. Often, if at all, users become aware of the recurring fee once they are charged several days or months after their purchase”.

The list is much longer and maybe reading the full list can save citizens both time, money and frustration.  As the research paper concludes, collections of dark patters are necessary in order to counter measure against them, and:  “given that many of these patterns are potentially unlawful, we can also aid regulatory agencies in addressing and mitigating their use”.

Get the full paper


Mie Oehlenschläger (f. 1979) er cand. mag i Moderne Kultur og Kulturformidling. Hun har over ti års erfaring med strategisk kommunikation og er pt. ansat som ekstern lektor i faget New Media & Changing Communities, mens hun arbejder som selvstændig konsulent og freelance skribent med fokus børn, digitalisering og cyberkultur – læs mere på