Uber Is Apparently Using Psychological Tricks To Make Its Drivers Work Harder And Longer For Less Money

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Uber has been struggling with a full-on crisis over the last few months. But lost amid the executive resignations and allegations of rampant sexual harassment are the ongoing revelations of the company’s use of personal information, data analysis, and software to get up to shady, and sometimes illegal, business. The latest such discovery alleges that the company has been using psychological tricks to get drivers to work longer hours for less money.

The basic problem, as The New York Times lays out in a compelling piece full of interactive widgets, is that Uber’s business model depends on having customers be able to grab an Uber anywhere, any time. But since Uber’s drivers aren’t employees, that means they’re not obligated to take a fare, be in a particular location or be active during any particular timeframe. That’s where the shady tricks — all designed to benefit Uber — come in.

It’s not like Uber puts a gun to the backs of their drivers’ heads, but the company has been trying to use what amounts to consumer psychology, but in reverse: Instead of getting you to buy stuff, the goal is to get you to work more. Some of it is simple — the system will prompt drivers to take another fare to hit an arbitrary goal, or it’ll load the next pickup drivers can take before they finish their current fare — and some of it is arguably useful, like putting a pin in a map where Uber’s seeing a lot of requests and letting drivers know. But then, well, there’s this:

Some local managers who were men went so far as to adopt a female persona for texting drivers, having found that the uptake was higher when they did.

“‘Laura’ would tell drivers: ‘Hey, the concert’s about to let out. You should head over there,’” said John P. Parker, a manager in Uber’s Dallas office in 2014 and 2015, referring to one of the personas. “We have an overwhelmingly male driver population.”

None of this is illegal, per se, but it’s worth noting that Uber is pulling a lot of tactics from freemium video games, like offering up badges, using cajoling language, and other tactics that many game designers and psychologists worry encourage unhealthy behavior. And, as The Times notes, as the “gig economy” continues to be increasingly reliant on “independent contractors” driven by market incentives, not marching orders, companies like Uber will continue leaning on tactics like offering “incentives” that aren’t worth much or guilt-tripping drivers about how much more they could be making just to ensure that there’s always a car available to the consumer, no matter the cost to the contractor piloting that car.

Of course, all these companies could solve this problem by simply paying their workers more to handle unpopular shifts. Perhaps Uber could consider reducing how much it takes from each fare during less popular times and in less desirable locations. After all, surely a company so dedicated to the free market can acknowledge that sometimes you can’t fight supply and demand.

(Via The New York Times)