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The behavioural science of online harm and manipulation, and what to do about it

An exploratory paper to spark ideas and debate

  • Report
  • 15th Apr 2019

Did you know...

  • Our behaviour is shaped by the design of our online environment, and easily predicted - browsing on mobiles, we choose from the 3 top search results 70% of the time
  • Engagement with online data privacy notices is typically low, but simply telling customers how long a privacy notice takes to read increased opening rates by 105%
  • Attention is a limited resource. Simply leaving your phone in another room increases performance on a working memory task by 11%, compared with having it face down on your desk

This discussion paper explores the rapidly evolving landscape of how we behave and interact online, and how businesses respond. The internet has transformed how we live, work and relate to one another. We can make ‘friends’ around the world without ever saying ‘hello’, compare products from dozens of shops without leaving the house, or plan a date with a stranger without breaking a sweat. Overall it has proven a powerful force for good; delivering significant benefits to the economy and to consumers in the form of greater choice, personalisation, and incredible convenience.

Yet the characteristics of online environments – the deliberate design and the ability to generate enormous quantities of data about how we behave, who we interact with and the choices we make, coupled with the potential for mass experimentation – can also leave consumers open to harm and manipulation. Many of the failures and distortions in online markets are behavioural in nature, from the deep information asymmetries that arise as a result of consumers being inattentive to online privacy notices to the erosion of civility on online platforms. This paper considers how governments, regulators and at least some businesses might seek to harness our deepening understanding of human behaviour to address these failures, and to shape and guide the evolution of digital markets and online environments that really do work for individuals and communities.

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