How companies use social pain, to stop customers from leaving

By Brian Cugelman, PhD with editorial production from Debra Weinryb

When it comes to emotional design, people typically talk about positive emotions and user experiences, like how products can make people feel happy. But what they rarely discuss is using emotional design to evoke negative emotions, like stress, anxiety, and even pain.

This is a pop-up that’s triggered on Get Response ( based on tracking mouse patterns that indicate users are about to abandon the page. Their joke message plays off attachment anxiety. 

Negative emotions are often used in interactive design through loss aversion tactics, a way of getting people to take one action to avoid the bad situation that would result from inaction.
Negative emotions are also used to create emotional barriers, to stop users from doing something you don’t want them to do, such as trying to stop your customers from leaving your company out of fear of your competitors, rather then because of love for your brand.
If you want to learn just how motivating negative emotions are, checkout, a website where users commit to achieve a behavioral goal, like eating healthy, or exercising more. However, unlike your typical fitness app, stickK asks its users to put their money into escrow, and if the user doesn’t achieve their goal, their money will go to an organization that they dislike, but to be more effective, stickK encourages users to put their money at risk of going to an organization they hate.

Are you ready to set your 2017 New Year’s Resolution? Stickk ( let’s you choose a commitment of your choice in exchange for stakes that you set (setting stakes is optional). If you don’t meet your goal, you’re encouraged to have Stickk send it to an organization you hate.

There’s a broad spectrum of emotions that that are typically used by web designers, UX pros and digital marketers, but in this article, we’re only going to focus on how websites use attachment anxiety as a retention strategy, and discuss how neuroscience suggests that men and women feel these emotions differently.

What’s attachment anxiety?

Attachment anxiety is that uneasy feeling you experience when you’re feeling insecure about a relationship, and uncomfortable about a potential breakup. It’s that heightened awareness that you experience, when you sense that someone is threatening your relationships, such as someone making a move on your romantic partner, business contacts, or even more devastating, your social media friends.
After experiencing the loss of a relationship, we go beyond attachment anxiety, and enter the realm of breakup pain, where we feel some of the most unpleasant social emotions.
Breakup emotions don’t just affect us psychologically, but research suggests they’re also felt physically. This is why we use terms such as “broken heart” and “heart ache” to describe the physical pain of breakups, and why we can take aspirin to alleviate the symptoms.
To a lesser degree, you may know the cyber version of these emotions, like that uncomfortable feeling when too many people unsubscribe from your newsletter, when customers abandon your company, or if you’ve ever tried to leave Facebook, you’ll know how it feels to get dragged through a gauntlet of social betrayal innuendos for leaving your friends, in a landing page that is optimized to make you feel guilty.
Whereas healthy relationships keep people together with positive feelings such as warmth, trust, and loyalty, attachment anxiety is associated with unhealthy relationships, where people feel motivated to stay together because of negative emotions, such as relationship insecurity, suspicion and fear of loss.
One way it keeps people together is by motivating one party to remove relationship threats, like what happens when your significant other starts chatting with someone in Facebook, whose cute picture raises your level of awareness, and motivates you to find out if you if you have romantic competition.
Another way that attachment anxiety can motivate people is through loss-aversion where people stay together to avoid the unpleasant emotions associated with breakups. For instance, some people fear that if they leave an online community, they’ll feel like their abandoning their peers, so they stay in to avoid the unpleasant feelings attached to abandoning others.

Oxytocin and attachment anxiety

If you want to become a better emotional designer, I hold the opinion that you’re going to have to learn a couple of basic concepts from neuroscience and biology.
Since there’s such a massive volume of information from these fields, I’m only going to discuss the neurotransmitter oxytocin, that is not just responsible for forming bonds of trust, loyalty, and connectedness with your users, but also, the neurotransmitter associated with distrust, attachment anxiety, and social pain.
Also, when it comes to understanding the emotional differences between men and women, oxytocin helps us understand not just attachment anxiety, but the physical effects of social pain, and how men and women are more likely to react to different emotional design strategies.
Let’s look at a 2013 study by Ruth Feldman, called ‘Plasma oxytocin distributions in a large cohort of women and men and their gender-specific associations with anxiety,’ published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.
The goal of this study was to measure the distribution of oxytocin in men and women, and to examine whether levels of oxytocin and anxiety are moderated by gender.
To perform the assessments of anxiety and oxytocin levels, the researchers took a blood sample from 473 participants, and asked them to complete a questionnaire.

Scatter plots (with regression lines) of the relation between plasma oxytocin and trait-and-attachment-anxiety among women (left panels) and men (right panels). Weisman et al (2012)

The authors found that gender serves as moderator for relationships with oxytocin, with high levels of oxytocin indicating lower trait anxiety in men than women, and higher levels of oxytocin indicating higher attachment anxiety in women than men.
The researchers also found that women with extreme levels of oxytocin were three times more likely to be highly anxious. This association did not happen with men.

Should we design differently for men versus women?

The science of how neurochemistry plays into web design and marketing is still in its infancy. This means I’m not yet able to find papers with slick titles like, “The mediating effects of exogenous oxytocin on the emotional processing of male and female populations exposed to attachment-anxiety evoking web stimuli”.
So to answer the question of sex differences, the best I can do is generalize from what we do know about oxytocin, emotions, and gender, and look at how this applies to interactive design.
What we know is that men and women differ in their oxytocin levels. Generally, women have higher oxytocin levels than men do, and female oxytocin levels increase during childbirth. This means that women are, theoretically more likely to experience stronger emotional reactions to attachment anxiety inspired web design, especially after having had children. Also, people who have higher levels or greater sensitivity to oxytocin are more likely to feel these design patterns more intensely, regardless of their gender.
These differences apply to far more than attachment anxiety, since oxytocin play a role in a wide number of emotions and social behaviors, but in this blog, we’re only focused on one emotion.

So… what does this mean for Interactive Design, UX and Marketing?

Whereas behavior-change focused web design normally focusses on getting users to complete tasks or click on buttons, in emotional design, quite often, our goal is to stop people from taking action, which means optimizing exit pages to achieve lower click through rates.
Following are several areas that you should be aware of, in using attachment anxiety, for emotional design.

1. Framing opting-out like breaking-up

Unless you’re escaping a crappy relationship, breakups are generally unpleasant, and normally painful, which is why more and more interactive designers are framing unsubscribing and opting-out like a break-up.
What they’re doing is playing on their users’ social emotions, by framing the end of business relationships as if they were the end of a friendship or romance. In some cases, they’re more subtle, with just a hint of sadness, while at other times, they come with guilt, anger, and even resentment in the rare, immature cases.
These emotional design techniques are used to frame all sorts of business breakups, from simple newsletter unsubscribe pages, to opting-out pages, to emergency interventions when customers break long-term commercial relationships.
Priceline’s email opt-out page is a great example that starts by first using high contrast visual techniques to draw users’ eyes towards the sentence: “We’re sorry to see you go!”

 Priceline’s unsubscribe page ( expresses its apologies and provides a dignified break-up with options regarding how frequently you want to receive communications.

The brand’s not sorry to see you go, nor is the website, as these are non-human things. They don’t have feelings. However, there’s no shortage of research that shows that people still feel the effects of human-like interaction, even when expressed by technology.
Next, having set the stage as a dignified break-up scenario, where their user is in control, and the rejected brand is respectful, they next offer a mitigation strategy, where the user has the option to go for a full break-up or to receive fewer notifications.
Sometimes the unpleasantness of breaking-up is expressed through simple language, while at other times, with guilt ridden looks of loss and sadness. Lenovo’s SHAREit provides a funny example of a tearful mobile phone that expresses sadness at your breakup, asking, “Are you sure you want to leave?”

This comes from uninstalling Lenonvo’s desktop application called SHAREit. Before you make the final decision to leave, they throw up an image of a sad app shedding a tear over your breakup. This is the last step before the users have the option to uninstall the software.

This emotional design pattern works by using dialogue and visuals to try and evoke empathy in the user towards the sad technology, who is crying at the moment of your breakup. While this may be perceived as a joke by some, others will have an emotional reaction to some degree.
But what happens when your unsubscribe page is modelled on a nasty breakup, or at least one with an undertone of resentment and snarky comments? Just as emotional intelligence can create better user experiences, emotional unintelligence can lead to negative feelings.
In my opinion, Crunchbase needs emotional optimization in their unsubscribe page which misses several opportunities.

On Cruchbase (, users can unsubscribe without facing any emotional barriers. After the fact, the website puts out a message expressing how it’s sorry you are leaving, but it’s too late to change the users’ behavior.

First, they draw users’ eyes to text that informs them that they’ve unsubscribed, rather than using the space to put up an emotional barrier.
Second, they use the words, “We’re sorry to see you go”, too late, after the user has unsubscribed. At this point, they’ve lost their ability to make a connection with the user, because they’re already opted out.
Finally, their follow-up line sounds a bit arrogant to me, which says “You’ll no longer receive relevant updates”. I interpret this as arrogant, because it presumes the user perceives their content as relevant, which is probably not the case for someone who’s in an unsubscribing mindset.
Personally, I’d recommend against any editorial tone that sounds arrogant (unless you’re doing status marketing or making it humorous), and instead, generally go with a respectful tone.
If you break a business relationship with anyone, would you like to hear “I’m too sexy for this relationship”, “You’re not good enough to be our customer, loser”, or how about, “I’m sorry if something didn’t work out. Can you let me know what we did wrong?”

2. Misrepresenting users’ profiles, to sway other users

If your product, service, or brand, isn’t able to generate the level of customer loyalty that you’re looking for, you can always up-your-game by playing on your users’ real relationships, with friends and loved ones.
People feel the full spectrum of emotions from online interaction, that they can feel through face-to-face social interaction. Though there are different opinions here, my current belief is that the emotions are the same, but that the media and social context impacts the intensity of those emotions.
Companies that mediate social relationships, such as social media, community portals, and contractor services, have one of the strongest emotional design cards available, which they often play when users attempt to leave.
At a high-level, it goes something like this:
• Step 1: Get your users to connect with each other in social media.
• Step 2: If they try to leave, guilt them out by showing them photos of all the people who will miss them, so the breakup is felt more acutely, and they’re more susceptible to retention strategies.
• Step 3: If they insist on leaving, part on good terms, while offering a way for them to come back in the future.

Facebook’s deactivation page is highly optimized to prevent people from leaving, playing on numerous emotional barriers designed to accent attachment anxiety to the extreme.

Facebook has a great example of this design strategy in their deactivation page, what many people believe is the last step, prior to leaving Facebook. True profile deletion is a different process.
If you’d like to deactivate your Facebook page, you’re going to see the page below, which plays on several retention web strategies, including motivational barriers, physical effort barriers, and numerous distractions designed to lure users away from the deactivation button.
I’ve annotated many of their design strategies in the screenshot below, but let me highlight just a few of their attachment anxiety tactics.
To start raising my emotional barriers, Facebook makes the false claim that my 600 friends will no longer be able to keep in touch with me. This is an attempt to heighten my attachment anxiety, by accenting my emotional fear of isolation. However, this claim is not true because I can stay in touch through many other channels.
Next, they attempt to raise the emotional stakes by using photos of my friends to bait me in. Photos are powerful engagement magnets, that don’t just draw the eye, but also, play a role in attachment, with photos of familiar loved ones triggering the release of oxytocin.
After pulling me in, with photos of my friends, Facebook’s design team attempts to heighten my fear of loss by telling me that my friends will miss me, while luring me towards two distractions that will take me off this page, one positioned above my friends, and the other positioned below them.

Is Facebook’s editorial team using dark patterns for retention?

Attachment anxiety is a powerful motivator, and there’s nothing unethical about using it. The worst abusers who exploit this emotion are not manipulative companies, but rather your family and friends. However, in this case, I feel that Facebook’s editorial team has crossed the dark pattern line because of how they’ve used it.
If Facebook’s editorial team had only used attachment anxiety to minimize user abandonment, I’d say that’s a fair emotional design strategy. However, Facebook’s staff opted to blend attachment anxiety tactics with baseless claims, and have chosen to place words into my friends’ mouths, that they did not say, and which I don’t believe to be true.
I can’t read my friends’ minds, so I don’t know if my friends will miss me just because I’ve left Facebook. At the same time, Facebook has no idea how my friends and acquaintances feel about my Facebook membership status. Yet Facebook’s editorial team has chosen to put words in my friend’s mouth, that they did not utter themselves, in an attempt to sway my emotions, and stop me from leaving.
They also made a ridiculous factually incorrect claim, that my friends will no longer be able to stay in touch with me, which is utter nonsense. My friends have my phone number, email address, and we’re on other social channels too.
I can only speculate that this dark pattern has emerged from conversion rate optimization focused on persuading users to stay in Facebook. Quite often, interactive designers figure out what converts through iterative A/B testing, but without a grounding in behavioral science, they often figure out what works without knowing why.
In this case, Facebook has optimized their deactivation page for retention with a few dishonest claims. It’s possible they didn’t understand the psychological principles, and were unable to achieve the same results in an honest way. In other words, they knew which phrases retained best, but because they didn’t understand the emotional systems, they were unable to A/B test text playing on the same emotions, that was more honest.
My recommendation to Facebook’s staff is to still use attachment anxiety for this page, but to pair it with justifiable claims. It may even boost retention, by also fostering greater brand trust. A manipulative exit will only deepen the distrust. A respectful exit will build goodwill for the future.

When should you use attachment anxiety

My general rule of thumb for using stressful emotions in interactive design or user experience, is that you’ll want to use them sparingly, so that you evoke just enough stress to motivate your users, but never so much that you trigger high levels of stress, which normally works against motivational design.
Not enough stress and it’ll be impossible to motivate users. Too much stress and you’ll push users into unhealthy levels of anxiety which can stop them from taking action. But if you really overdo it, your tactics may be perceived as dark patterns being employed by a manipulative, sociopathic brand.
We’d have to have a longer discussion to get into the rules of how and when to use stress and anxiety in interactive design, but as a short rule of thumb, I recommend only using it when you need it, particularly for retention, especially when you have nothing left to lose. Think of it as a last resort tactic.
For instance, it’s a design tactic to play when users are showing signs of abandonment, such as not logging in, not using your platform, or specifically opting out. It’s useful at these points, as you have nothing to lose, and of course, it can be implemented in a tasteful and respectful way.
Research shows that oxytocin shapes brand loyalty and I also suspect that people who have higher oxytocin levels, may feel like cheaters when they’re shopping around for a different product or service.
So if you know your customers are potentially cheating on your company, and you’re feeling attachment anxiety towards your customers, this may be a good time to let them know that your brand cares.

If you love your users, set them free

Although negative emotions and the pain of separation can be used in web design or digital marketing, I didn’t mention that oxytocin has no impact on emotions when people sense that they’re being deceived. It’s part of nature’s self-defense mechanism to protect us from scammers.
So, if you want your users to feel a true sense of loss at the time of separation, your best strategy is to build long-term trusting relationships, based on authenticity, and respect.
This way, the words “We miss you” written in your unsubscribe page won’t be interpreted like a manipulation tactic, but instead, if you’ve had magical levels of engagement, perhaps, a few oxytocin sensitive users will feel your parting words like Humphrey Bogart’s famous breakup line: “We’ll always have Paris”.
Here’s looking at you, kid.

P.S. I also authored a technical blog on the role of oxytocin in human computer interaction, if you’re interested in learning more about one of the most obscure areas of neuroscience and computer interaction.

Thanks Randy Mitson for sharing this exit page with us:


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