Uber has crossed the line from motivating employees to actively manipulating them

Image: Reuters/Toby Melville
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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. A recent article in the New York Times explains 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’ knowledge 

That’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.

2) Uber is taking away drivers’ autonomy

Good incentive systems leave the control in the hands of the employee. The incentive increases the value of a certain behavior, then the person decides whether that increased value is worth extra effort, and how to react.

Uber seems to want to remove this conscious control by using motivation techniques that remove the drivers’ agency. For example, when the company rolled out their forward dispatch program—wherein a driver is assigned a new ride before they’ve completed the previous one—drivers rolled from one ride to the next without being given a chance to stop. (Later iterations allowed the driver to manually pause the forward dispatch functionality.)

From an ethical perspective, this is a big problem. An incentive, by definition, involves a worker actively making the choice to take on extra work for additional reward. Drivers need to be able to consciously gauge the value of the extra work in comparison to the alternatives (go home and see your family, for example). If the worker doesn’t have the option to say “no,” it’s not motivation—it’s coercion.

3. ) Uber is enticing drivers to do things that are contrary to their self-interest

Uber is constantly fiddling with the placement of cars to ensure its customers have the shortest possible wait times. One way of ensuring short wait times is to lure drivers to lower-demand locations, where they will spend more time idle and unpaid.

While that formula works for Uber and its customers, it’s a painful proposition for drivers. If a worker needs to “take one for the team,” they should be aware that’s what they are doing, and ideally they should be compensated in some way. Uber’s defense is that, over the long-term, more drivers means more passengers, and less time spent idling. But this misses the point that for a single driver at a given point in time, a notification to move to underserved area may not be in their best interest. Long-term success with incentive systems requires win-wins, not win-lose scenarios.

The upshot

For all of these reasons, Uber’s programs don’t fit my definition of effective or ethical incentives. By obscuring the purpose (and even the existence) of motivational programs, removing or limiting the driver’s ability to control which incentives they accept or decline, and designing the system to maximize company outcomes at the expense of the drivers, Uber’s programs have crossed a line.

The frightening thing is that no one is there to protect the Uber drivers—or any of the other millions of workers now working contractually rather than as employees, in industries such as video game design, retail, and professional services. Worker protections must catch up with the novel abuses of the gig economy. There is a new and vital role for unions to play in protecting workers from manipulative practices. There is also surely a role for regulation (although new regulation will be an unpopular topic with the current administration). And all of us, increasingly addicted to the cheapness and convenience of the gig economy, need to start taking a hard look at its costs.