5 ways online services manipulate you

Digital freedomTips & tricks
6 mins
User icon with frustration lines emanating from their globe head.

It’s no secret the internet is a powerful source of information and convenience for everyone. We go to it for news about the world, to connect with friends and family, and to enjoy all sorts of wonderful content.

As we use our favorite online services, it’s easy to trust them and think they only exist to serve us. But is that true? The advent of technology has brought us much convenience, but it has also allowed companies to leverage us for their own goals.

Read on for 5 online tactics that are often employed to hijack your agenda and replace it with someone else’s.

1. Limiting your options

Most people have heard of In-N-Out Burger, the California-based burger chain famous for its secret menu. To the uninformed, there doesn’t appear to be much to distinguish In-N-Out’s offerings from those of competing restaurants. However, aficionados know that the best items are actually on In-N-Out’s secret menu (you’re welcome), and this information allows them to get more out of their visit.

Similarly, companies often provide partial or “controlled” menus that make it easier to pick the options they want and harder to choose the ones that might be better for us. This works because we often take the displayed options to be exhaustive and do not ask questions like: “Are these all the options?”, “Do these options actually meet my needs?”, and “Does the menu provider have incentives to promote certain options over others?”

Next time you’re scrolling through Yelp for a place to eat or combing through products on Amazon, keep your original goal in mind as you make a decision. Remember to evaluate a menu based on its ability to meet your needs and don’t be afraid to look for other menus if the current one is insufficient. There’s almost always another choice.

2. Getting you addicted

People often think the best way to get someone hooked on an activity is to reward them each time they perform the activity. The truth, you may be surprised to learn, is a case of “less is more”.

Researchers have found that variable reward schedules is the most effective method to mold desired behaviors into habits. The underlying reason is simple: Instead of rewarding a user each time they use an online service (allowing them to stop when they’re satisfied), the user is only occasionally rewarded. This encourages the user to repeatedly use the service, hoping that the next iteration of the activity will be the one for which they are rewarded.

What everyone hopes to see each time they log on: exactly 2 new notifications.

Examples of this are easy to spot. We constantly check our Facebook accounts because we think our next login might reward us with a new photo or status update from a close friend. We return to our favorite mobile game app in hope that the next playthrough will unlock a new level or bonus. And just like that, the providers of these services are able to keep us hooked on their platform, profiting from additional advertising or in-app purchases.

3. Fear of missing out

That got your attention, didn’t it? If so, you’re not alone. Research shows that people respond more acutely to the pain of loss than the pleasure of gain. So while an online ad telling shoppers to “act now for a $50 discount!” might not be overly effective (the shopper doesn’t care too much for something that isn’t theirs), the same ad can be rewritten to scream “act now or you lose $50!”

Although the message is largely the same, this repositions the offer as something the audience already owns and stands to lose. As you may suspect, that is often enough to persuade someone to take action for something they didn’t need in the first place.

Therefore, it behooves you to ask yourself a few simple questions in future situations: Do I really need what this online offer is selling me? Is the “loss” described actually a disguised extra I don’t really need?

4. Getting you to invest your time

Everyone’s got that friend. You know, the one who asks you to go to the furniture shop for some window shopping and ends up getting you to carry and assemble the new shelf they buy. That’s not a good friend. The sad thing is, there are many people online who want to be that kind of friend to you.

Many businesses like to employ this sort of “gradual engagement” tactic to get you to convert (and pay them money). For example, a guitar manufacturer will often allow you to design your dream axe on their website instead of outright asking you to buy a guitar. From an attractive visual interface, you begin by choosing the guitar body you want, move on to your preferred bridge and neck, and wrap up with a personally selected fretboard and patterned finish.

By the time you see your completed prototype, you’ve already invested time and effort into designing your dream guitar, and it’s much easier for the manufacturer to sell you that individualized product. You’ll no doubt be paying them a premium for the privilege of having a bespoke instrument too.

5. Automatic feeds / infinite scroll

Another way companies keep you hooked on their content is by continually giving you more of it. A food psychology study showed that people drinking soup from “bottomless bowls” (slowly refilling bowls attached to the table) consumed an astounding 73% more than those eating from regular bowls. Bottomless bowl users also estimated that they consumed, on average, 140.5 fewer calories than they actually did. It’s no surprise that companies have used this insight to their own advantage.

Funny cat videos are a lot like aspirin. If you can’t remember how many you’ve consumed, the answer is probably “too many”.

Some Internet equivalents of bottomless bowls are our never-ending Facebook feeds and YouTube’s autoplay functionality. Instead of allowing us to easily disengage with content after a few scrolls or video plays, these platforms constantly show us new content that “you might be interested in”. When coupled with our implicit bias to loss aversion, it’s no surprise how so many of us can unconsciously spend hours every day on these channels, consuming content we don’t need while becoming revenue opportunities for service providers.

Fight the manipulation: Know thyself

Ultimately, the common theme behind these five tactics is that companies often try to change your reasons into their reasons. Maybe you are simply looking for an affordable phone plan, but a network provider can easily bundle in some unnecessary features to entice you to sign up for a more expensive service. Maybe you just want to keep up with an overseas friend online, but social media platforms can keep you on their site (to consume their ads) by constantly showing you status updates and photos from other people you know.

Does this mean we should distrust everything we see online? Not really. After all, it does seem a little harsh to swear off all forms of technology (and the conveniences they bring) simply because some companies are taking extra opportunities to make money.

However, this does serve as a reminder that we need to be savvy Internet users – users who appreciate the benefits of the Internet, are mindful of our online goals, and remain wary of the pitfalls that await when we allow technology to modify these goals.

Keith enjoys reading technology news, playing football, and consuming unwholesome amounts of steak. Preferably at the same time.