The gig economy is supposed to be a tradeoff: In exchange for foregoing the stability of a steady income and health benefits, workers get more freedom and flexibility. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that, in some cases, workers are giving up a lot more than they get in return. Recent articles revealed that the ride-sharing service Uber has been using design based on behavioral science to encourage its workers to work longer hours—for less money than they think. On one hand, organizations since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution have tried to incentivize employees to behave in ways that are advantageous to the bottom line. But federal law also affords employees certain protections—mandatory lunch breaks and paid overtime for certain categories of workers, for example—meant to protect workers from abuse. As contract workers, Uber drivers do not have those protections. And there are several things about the ways in which Uber is using tools to manipulate drivers that cause me to bristle as an expert in organizational psychology. Here are the primary issues with Uber’s use of behavioral design.
1) Uber is experimenting on drivers without the drivers’ knowledgeThat’s a big problem. The small army of behavioral scientists at Uber headquarters is manipulating the myriad buttons, badges, and banners on the drivers’ app to encourage them to change their behavior. The New York Times reports:
For months, when drivers tried to log out, the app would frequently tell them they were only a certain amount away from making a seemingly arbitrary sum for the day, or from matching their earnings from that point one week earlier. The messages were intended to exploit another relatively widespread behavioral tic — people’s preoccupation with goals—to nudge them into driving longer.In effect, Uber is treating drivers as guinea pigs for different app designs designed to prod them to do what the company wants, and harder for them to follow their own instincts. In another experiment, Uber manipulated whether a male or female name was associated with certain notifications, and learned that the predominantly male drivers acquiesced to a female sender more frequently than to a male sender. This kind of psychological experimentation is strictly controlled in most environments. The concept of informed consent is a fundamental tenant of human research, meant to protect us from being experimented upon without our knowledge or full understanding of the potential consequences. An undergraduate psych major has to go through multiple ethics committees to send a survey to fellow students. But evidently Uber can experiment on its drivers with no repercussions. Healthy relationships are not built on deception.