We’re All Guinea Pigs: The Hidden Experiments of Corporate Websites

What Makes You Click

VPRO (2016)

Film Review

This is a documentary about the vast amount of A/B design testing* that websites subject us to without our knowledge.

The psychological science behind “conversion optimization” (ie increasing the money we spend online) is becoming increasingly advanced. As “online persuaders” explain to filmmakers, most of us are totally unaware of specific design features that lead us to stay longer and spend more money on specific websites.

For example, most of us find pop-ads extremely irritating. Nevertheless studies show they consistently increase on-line sales by 10-15%.

Facebook constantly reconfigures the design of their newsfeed to increase dopamine surges (dopamine is the main neurotransmitter associated with stimulant addiction) in the brains of their users. Theoretically the pleasurable feelings this produces helps keep visitors on their site longer.  In fact, one psychologist compares the effect Facebook and Twitter invoke to the feeling gambling addicts describe of “being in the zone .”

The film, produced before the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica** scandal erupted in early 2018, also discusses the on-line behavioral research the Obama campaign used in 2012 to influence voter behavior.

Several researchers seriously question the ethics of using hidden techniques to persuade Internet users to act against their own best interests. Some have joined together in the Time Well Spent movement to press for stronger government regulation. They worry that wide uptake of artificial intelligence technology could make it virtually impossible to audit persuasion strategems that operate below the level of human consciousness.

*A/B testing relies on randomized experiments with two variants, A and B. It serves to test a subject’s response to variant A against variant B to determine which of the two variants is more effective.

**In early 2018, we learned that Cambridge Analytica harvested the personal data from millions of Facebook profiles without users’ consent and used it to target them for 2016 election advertising.

3 thoughts on “We’re All Guinea Pigs: The Hidden Experiments of Corporate Websites

  1. This is an interesting subject: What makes you to become addicted?
    “being in the zone” Well, I think for most people it would have to be a “zone” they’d really like to be in. Or not?
    If I was more versed in understanding how online transactions work, maybe I too would
    be in kind of danger of becoming addicted . . .
    At this stage in my life I definitely much prefer to visit shops if I am looking for a special product I want to buy. But I must admit some online advertising in this regard can be helpful.
    However, to buy online I’d rather do without if at all possible! 🙂


  2. According to the researchers at Facebook, Aunty, subjects experience pulses of dopamine in their brain in response to visitors liking and commenting on their Facebook and Instagram (owned by Facebook) posts. Human beings experience the presence of dopamine in their brain as extremely pleasurable – both cocaine and amphetamines act by increasing dopamine.

    I, too, would much rather visit a shop rather than shop online.


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