As Uber continues to battle less-than-flattering headlines, a new report outlines the company's "extraordinary" behavioral science experiment and its potential impact on drivers. The detailed report from the New York Times' Noam Scheiber, released just days after Uber told reporters it was working to improve its relationship with drivers, includes interviews and additional insight from current and former company officials, drivers, and social scientists.
The alleged "psychological tricks" named in the Times' analysis are varied, with several taking inspiration from well-known features found on services such as Netflix and in competitive video games. We've broken down five of these controversial encouragement techniques below, starting with the use of alerts regarding "seemingly arbitrary" goals:
Exploiting Drivers' Earnings Goals
The Uber app hits drivers with messages notifying them they're close to a specific dollar amount, then asks if they're "sure" they want to go offline if that amount hasn't been met. The message also gives a pair of prompts, Go Offline and Keep Driving, with the latter already preselected. "I've got screenshots with dozens of these messages," Josh Streeter, a former Uber driver, told the Times. From a behavioral science standpoint, the messages are meant to "exploit" people's tendency toward goal preoccupation. As a benefit for the company, this can potentially inspire drivers to stay on the road for longer periods of time.
Showing Drivers Their Next Potential Ride Before the Current One Ends
The forward dispatch algorithm, likened to Netflix's binge-promoting feature that automatically plays the next episode in a series, sends a new ride to drivers before the current ride is over. Though Uber has since initiated the ability for drivers to pause for restroom breaks and gas fill-ups, the Times noted that disabling the feature is required after each accepted ride.
Adopting "Female Personas" to Encourage Male Drivers
To combat predicted driver shortages, Uber told local managers to "experiment" with methods of getting drivers to specific locations. Some managers, claiming a higher success rate with this method, decided to adopt a so-called "female persona" when texting drivers about shortages. "We have an overwhelmingly male driver population," John P. Parker, previously an Uber manager in Dallas, told the Times.
Making Work Feel Like a Competitive Video Game
Does your job feel like video game? For many Uber drivers, the answer appears to be a firm yes. The app displays to drivers their total trips haul for the current working week, their income, total hours driven, and their average rating. This display, experts say, can trigger the same competitiveness found in video games. The Times dubbed this the "gamification" of the platform, noting that drivers can even earn video game-esque rewards. The continuation of gamification methods, due to the fact that drivers are technically contractors, is not hindered by employment legalities.
Not Disclosing a Passenger's Final Destination Until the Ride Is Accepted
Judging the profitability of a trip before accepting the ride is not allowed, as the app does not disclose a passenger's destination to drivers beforehand.
Following a series of controversies in recent months, Uber has made an effort to rehabilitate its image. A senior Uber official told reporters during a press call in March that the company's future success is reliant on establishing a "great culture" for its workforce, starting with internal change. "Going forward there can be no room at Uber for brilliant jerks and zero tolerance for anything but totally respectable behavior in an equitable workplace environment," the official said.