Persuasion or Deception

Paul van Zanten is a 21 year old student international business at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Friends define Paul as a very spontaneous, kind and funny person. During an exchange program last year he studied for 6 months at the University of Dublin in Ireland. Paul is a real nice guy and he made a lot of friends over there.

“Hi Paul this is Sean. How are you bro? Diarmud, Mark, Damian and I are throwing a big birthday party by the end of this month Are you coming over? just get yourself a ticket I will arrange a place to sleep and stuff.”

Ryanairs deceptive travel insurance option

Paul decides to take on this offer. He is really looking forward seeing them again and because he only needs a ticket, costs are also within his budget. He goes to the Ryanair.com website, he selects his flight and fills in the form.

Ryanair asks Paul what his country of residence is. By selecting his country he purchases travel insurance to cover his luggage, medical and flight delay. Paul is a healthy young man and he decides only to take hand luggage with him so he doesn’t need this insurance. However it’s not immediately clear how to select this option.

Is RyanAir's webform persuasive or deceptive?

KPNs deceptive price order

Paul arrives at the airport early. He brought his laptop so he can do some schoolwork on his journey. At the airport he wants to check his facebook, e-mail and twitter messages. 30 minutes of Internet access is enough to do all this. Paul fills out the KPN form. There are a few options. At first glance it looks like they go from low to high. In fact, the cheapest and most likely option (he only needs an hour on the internet) is at the bottom of the dropdown while the other more expensive options are sorted from low to high.

KPN deceptive price order

Persuasion or deception?

When Ryanair and KPN designed their forms they could have designed it anyway they want. So why did they choose for these specific options? In terms of transparancy there are solutions that are more clear. Ryanair can use radio buttons to ask whether Paul wants travel insurance or not and only show a list of countries once he promted ‘yes’. KPN could easily reorder their list from 15 minutes, 30 minutes, 90 minutes and 24 hours.

They do it because they want to change Paul’s behavior. Ryanair tries to trick him into buying a travel insurance and KPN does the same for 90 minutes WiFi. I think they are crossing an ethical line here.

One could say that if Paul looks very carefully he could see the options he wants. However, it’s really easy to miss a piece of information (do the Awareness test). The way Paul’s options are presented influences his choice.

The way something is presented influences behavior

A great example of this is the system of organ donations. In Germany 12% of the people are registered as a donor. In their neighbour country Austria almost everyone, 99%, is registered as a donor. The secret has to do with one simple form element. Germany uses the system of Explicit Consent. You get a form on which you can tick a box and thereby give your consent becoming a donor. Austria uses the system of Presumed Consent. You get a form on which you can tick a box and thereby not giving your consent becoming a donor. The default rule has a great impact on the outcome it seems.

Organ Donation Consent Rate per Country

Source: Johnson, E. & Goldstein, D. (2003, November 21). Medicine: Do Defaults Save Lives? Science Magazine, 302 (5649), 1338-1339.

What is persuasion?

According to BJ Fogg of Stanford University we have entered an era of persuasive technology, of Interactive computer systems designed to change people’s attitudes and behaviors.

To him persuasion is an attempt to change attitudes or behaviors or both (without using coercion or deception). Are the Ryanair and KPN examples deceptive? I think they are. The way the choices are presented benefits the companies more than the customers and there are simpler and clearer ways to present the customer these choices.

Persuasion monitoring

The mission of the Federtal Trade Commission is to protect America’s customers. The European Advertising Standards Alliance believes in legal, decent, truthful and honest advertising. Maybe it’s time for these or other similar type of organisation to step up and develop a code of conduct and several tools. I have one idea for a tool. Why not set-up a public website on which people can find and report deceptive and coercive websites. Because it’s arguable whether something is persuasive or deceptive. The site could work with some kind of voting system. It will be interesting to see how many people agree with me that Ryanair and KPN have use deceptive tactics. In the end this whole monitoring effect would prevent companies to conduct deceptive and coercive behavior because you don’t want to be on that list.

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  2. Antje Roestenburg on Saturday 9, 2010

    Well caught!

    I agree that it would be a good idea for the regulatory commissions to consider this issue, though perhaps an expert panel would be better suited than public votes (which might be more subjectively biased, depending on recent experiences with a particular company). Though I’m not sure if they could legally take any action.

    However, as a first step (and potentially quite effective), why don’t you start a public ‘black list’ on this site?

  3. [...] with forms is rather scary. Read Persuasion or Deception and decide whether those forms were intentionally designed to deceive. What if that person had been [...]

  4. Rob Stevens of Think Eye Tracking on Saturday 9, 2010

    I agree with your idea for a standard to be set and a regulator to enforce the standard. I did a piece of research on the credit agencies Equifax and Experian that shows Equifax effectively ‘hide’ the statutory £2.00 credit report and promote higher cost offerings: http://thinkeyetracking.com/Blog/?p=6

  5. [...] Stefan Wobben spotted some great examples of deception some months ago. Het wrote a post called Persuasion or Deception. Whether or not these examples were designed on purpose or not, they influence people’s [...]