Uber psychologically manipulates drivers like it’s a game, report reveals

Last month Uber CEO Travis Kalanick was caught on video arguing with a driver about fares. The driver complained that he was bankrupt because of the app; Kalanick told him it was his own fault.

The company has since apologised for this misstep, and noted that it needs leadership help. In a press conference to discuss its relationship with drivers — as well as the sexism that pervades the institution — head of US and Canada business Rachel Holt assured that the most important change is its relationship with its drivers.

“Drivers are at the center of the Uber experience, and the app they use to go online and earn money is at the center of theirs,” she said. “It’s about more stable earnings, a better product to take the stress out of driving, providing more human and understandable communications, and support so that drivers are true ‘partners'”.

But Uber is not treating drivers like partners: it’s treating them like pawns in a corporate game.

The New York Times reported yesterday that the company is continuing with psychologically manipulative ways to keep drivers on the road.

These tactics mostly stem from the conflict of interest between company and driver. For Uber, it is better when there are more drivers on the road. More drivers means shorter passenger waiting time, and reduces surge pricing resulting in lower passenger and company costs.

But for the driver, these surge prices mean higher income for less work. It also means constant business, reducing idle time during which they earn nothing.

Uber understands this dilemma, and, as The New York Times has revealed, uses questionable tactics to ensure business remains profitable.

Uber’s psychological game of chess

The most basic trick it employs is one that all those who game will understand: continual motivation for goals that will never be reached.

Behavioural economists have found that income targeting is prevalent in occupations that have flexible time. So when Uber drivers attempt to log off, often a message pops up about how they only need to make a little bit more to hit an arbitrary goal the app has set for them.

The app also commends new drivers on their way to hitting the first 25 trips before they’re able to sign on. A driver who completes around ten rides receives the “You’re almost halfway there!” message with which game developers are familiar.

Another psychological tactic The New York Times revealed is male local managers pretending to be women to manipulate the largely male driver base to follow orders.

This maneuvre is particularly egregious considering Uber’s history with sexual harassment, as well its small female working force. It’s difficult to understand why Uber would employ men to pretend to be women, when it could just hire women in the first place.

But right now, the overwork of drivers seems the most pressingly dangerous. Uber drivers are known for their long hours, with some even resorting to sleeping in their cars overnight. The fact that the company is perpetuating this issue does not seem in line with its rhetoric of placing drivers first.

“The optimal default we set is that we want you to do as much work as there is to do,” Uber’s research director told The Times. “You’re not required to by any means. But that’s the default.”

Because drivers are technically self-employed, Uber can get away with this form of manipulation in the workplace. But there is no denying the power the company has, or that tactics like this are worrying at best and dehumanising at worst.

Featured image: Evan Blaser via Flickr (CC 2.0, resized)



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