How scarcity affects your purchasing decisions—and bank account

One dark pattern specifically designed to make you spend more money is scarcity. Here's how to fight back.

How scarcity affects your purchasing decisions—and bank account

Digital spaces can be chaotic. As with physical spaces, online environments are constructed to produce certain responses, whether you realize it or not. In fact, the most effectively designed spaces occur under the level of conscious awareness.

For example, some restaurants play specific music to make you leave as soon as possible, while certain stores play a different genre to keep you wandering the aisles and shop longer. Companies spend a lot of time manipulating environments in order to make customers do what they want.

The field of User Experience (UX) research is devoted to making digital spaces as easy to navigate as possible. This type of work has become necessary due to the number of websites and apps that employ dark patterns, which are created in an attempt to trick users into buying products or signing up for services.

These patterns occur in the real world all the time. One common example: Theme parks set up merchandise stands in order to monetize your memories. As soon as you exit a ride, a photo or t-shirt is waiting for you to commemorate the moment—by opening your wallet.

In digital spaces, one dark pattern specifically designed to make you spend more money is scarcity.

Under pressure

We make poor decisions when we feel rushed. Knowing this, some companies exploit that feeling.

Sure, elite athletes perform exceptionally well under pressure. But for the average person who just wants to buy something, the feeling of being rushed into a decision can be difficult to manage.

That’s what scarcity does: it makes you feel that you’re going to lose out if you don’t make a decision right now.

Listing merchandise left in stock is a common example of scarcity. Perhaps you’re looking at a piece of furniture and suddenly, in bold red letters, you discover only one is left in the warehouse. You must act now!

There’s an even more insidious layer to this dark pattern. After you drop the furniture into the cart, a countdown timer informs you that 25 other people have this very same item in their carts. If you don’t order it within five minutes, you risk losing it forever!

A large-scale Princeton study of 11,000 shopping websites identified 632 instances of low-stock tactics being used across 581 websites, as well as 47 instances of high-demand messages (such as countdown timers) across 43 websites.

The pressure to purchase is rampant across shopping websites. As it turns out, scarcity is also used by financial apps.

A whale of a time

Financial apps are notoriously difficult to understand. A 2017 report found that many banking websites are harder to read than Moby Dick.

Your finances should not be that unclear.

While many industries use jargon in order to obscure intention, financial apps specifically employ a variety of dark patterns to try to force users to make bad decisions with their money.

A few include reframing—changing the language around a negative (such as paying a high interest rate) to a positive, like “the ability to carry a balance”—and misdirection, in which consumers think they’re making one decision while really they’re choosing something else.

Scarcity also exists in financial apps. At least one popular eCommerce marketing platform sells countdown timers as part of a suite of tools to help businesses implement scarcity into their sales technique.

The result of these dark patterns is rushed customers making bad decisions with their money. The fact that companies profit from your anxiety should make you question whether you want to support such businesses.

What to do

Scarcity is not always deceitful. Sometimes there really is low stock. In this case, the number left prominently displayed on the screen is helpful. The challenge is knowing if the website is being honest.

For the most part, countdown timers are a red flag that the company is trying to force you to spend your money.

The first question to ask in order to combat scarcity: How badly do you need this product?

If you really need it within five minutes, you’re likely to purchase it anyway. But if you’re feeling unnecessarily pressured, you might be experiencing a dark pattern.

Trustworthy companies don’t need to trick you into spending money. A short-term gain isn’t worth the loss of faith in their brand.

Just like real-life salespeople pushing just a little too hard, it’s important to notice if scarcity is being used. Do you really want to support businesses that unnecessarily make their customers feel pressured just to make another buck?

If you’re always feeling rushed whenever you log onto a website or open an app, consider looking elsewhere. And if your financial app is using these patterns in order to nudge you in directions that they want, it might be time to move your money elsewhere.

You deserve a better designed experience.


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