News. As Uber talks up its determination to treat drivers more humanely, it is engaged in an extraordinary behind-the-scenes experiment in behavioral science to manipulate them in the service of its corporate growth. The story in the New York Times from April 2nd 2017 is based on interviews with several dozen current and former Uber officials, drivers and social scientists, as well as a review of behavioral research.
Uber drivers are officially independent business owners rather than traditional employees with set schedules. This allows Uber to minimize labor costs, but means it cannot compel drivers to show up at a specific place and time. So what to do about that? Use data.
Uber’s tactics are similar to ones used by video game designers, according to the New York Times:
- alerting drivers when they are close to reaching an earnings goal set by the app.
- rewarding drivers with in-app badges that do not necessarily translate into higher earnings.
- a feature that automatically alerts drivers about their next potential fare before they drop off their current customer and can’t be turned off, only paused.
- male local managers pretending to be women when texting drivers to head to certain areas, after finding that female personas increased engagement.
This can potentially manipulate drivers into working longer hours or undesirable locations without higher income, and the drivers are extra vulnerable, as they lack the protections and benefits that employees get.
According to TechChrunch, Uber denies the allegations: “This is simply not true—and had the Times asked us whether it was, we would have explained the reality of what happens when Uber grows in a city: riders enjoy lower pick-up times and drivers benefit from less downtime between trips,” Uber’s director of policy research, Betsy Masiello, wrote in a blog post.