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A few weeks ago, a reader noted that the tactics outlined in my Persuasive Web Design series could be used toward unethical ends.

Let’s explore this issue. When is it okay to use psychological “tricks” to manipulate our visitors’ behavior?

Clearly Ethical Uses of Online Persuasion

When the intended action is healthy and positive, I think it’s pretty hard to question the ethics. For example:

  • Convincing people to wash their hands to prevent the spread of disease.
  • Encouraging people to eat well or reach and maintain a healthy weight.
  • Helping people to avoid expensive debt, improve their financial planning, etc.

It’s especially clear when people have asked for our help: For example:

  • A free online tool that helps people quit smoking.
  • A weight loss app that helps people reach a healthy weight.
  • A free online calculator that helps customers save for retirement.

Here, we’re simply supplying tools to help people reach their goals (which they may lack the willpower to reach otherwise).

Clearly EVIL Uses of Online Persuasion

It’s also easy to define where using psychological manipulation is clearly not ethical: Persuading people to do things that are dangerous, unhealthy or otherwise against their best interests:

  • Getting people to start smoking, or smoke more.
  • Selling drugs or supplements that provide no benefit, yet are dangerous or ridiculously expensive.
  • Convincing the poor or infirm to spend outrageous sums on inferior products.
  • Any blatant ripoff: taking money and giving little or nothing in return.

Note that unethical persuasion usually relies on deception. Are you:

  • Tricking people into visiting your website (e.g. with links that looks like dialog boxes, or ads that look like content)?
  • Hiding your identity, or pretending you’re someone you’re not?
  • Making false claims about your products?
  • Delivering little or nothing?

If you rely on deception, you have crossed the line. Please find another way to make a living.

The (Huge) Ethical Gray Area

Most cases are between the two extremes. There are many complex issues to consider, including:

  • At what point does “painting your product in a favorable light” become deception?
  • What’s a “harmful” product? Is it okay to sell junk food? Huge SUVs? Bottled water? Sub-prime mortgages?
  • Is there a point at which an “excellent profit margin” becomes an absurd ripoff?
  • To what extent are customers responsible for their own poor choices? Is “nobody forced him to buy it” a valid justification for ripping someone off? Or are you just rationalizing by blaming the victim?

Usually, we can look to our intent. If our intentions are noble — or at least not harmful — we’re usually okay.

But even then, it’s not always clear…

  • Is encouraging teenagers to use condoms helpful? It reduces teen pregnancies and the spread of STDs. But some folk would disagree, arguing we should promote abstinence.
  • If we convince people to join our religion, are we saving their souls? Or are we deluding them with false hope, and fostering intolerance and hatred against non-believers?
  • If we help get someone elected to office, are we advocating for the public good? Or are we using propaganda to spread our ideological beliefs?

In all the above cases, it really depends upon whom you ask.

I’ve struggled with these issues for over 20 years. And I still don’t have a “magic formula” to tell me if I’m crossing the line.

The closest I’ve come, is to ask myself questions like:

  • Would I tell my mom what I’ve done?
  • Would I be pleased if my campaign — with my name on it — were featured in Time Magazine?

It’s a very complicated issue. Opinions and ideas are welcome.