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How Uber Nudges Its Drivers to Work Longer - A Decision-Making Perspective to Work Design

From The New York Times, April 2, 2017

Employees make a lot of decisions at work everyday. They make decisions about when to start work, how to perform a task, how long to stay at work, and so on. To the extent that one' work or job involves substantive decision making, work or job design should be seriously considered (and perhaps could also be benefited) from a decision-making perspective. However, we see little existing research or practice applying decision-making perspectives into work or job design.

In an article published in The New York Times this week, Noam Scheiber presented us with an interesting and thought-provoking example demonstrating a perfect application of behavioral decision-making insights into the design or redesign of work. Specifically, Noam Scheiber scrutinized how Uber, an US. based transportation network company, has been using some trivial and subtle psychological tricks to "nudge" its drivers to work longer hours.

According to this article, Uber has designed an initiative which was derived from a well-known decision-making effect, namely the "loss aversion" effect, which holds that people “dislike losing more than they like gaining", to motivate its drivers to drive longer. Specifically, whenever a Uber driver tries to log off, he or she would receive a message from Uber saying like "Make it to $330. You’re $10 away from making $330 in net earnings. Are you sure you want to go offline?" This type of message, believed to be inducing drivers' fear of potential losses, would effectively motivate or encourage them to work longer hours.

It was also suggested in this article that the practices that Uber is employing are also forms of gamification. As the author mentioned, "some of the most addictive games ever made, like the 1980s and ’90s hit Tetris, rely on a feeling of progress toward a goal that is always just beyond the player’s grasp". Relating this to the research on work design, this gamification idea has also been proposed recently (click here for a related research project by Professor Arnold Bakker from Erasmus University Rotterdam).

However, what was less discussed in this article was the potential dark side of these "nudges". If Uber drivers are motivated by these psychological tricks to drive longer and longer and become "constantly busy", would their health and well-being as well as their continuous work be negatively affected? This remains to be further investigated.

Nevertheless, this interesting article may inspire work design researchers and practitioners to think about future ideas of improving work design from a behavioral decision-making perspective. Perhaps some subtle changes made to trivial aspects of work or tasks could "nudge" employees to work more effectively while at the same time feel happier.

Click here for the full article.

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