• 04.03.17

Uber is using psychological tricks to manipulate its drivers

An in-depth report from the New York Times reveals some of the ways Uber is using behavioral science to influence its drivers. Some highlights:

“To keep drivers on the road, the company has exploited some people’s tendency to set earnings goals — alerting them that they are ever so close to hitting a precious target when they try to log off. It has even concocted an algorithm similar to a Netflix feature that automatically loads the next program, which many experts believe encourages binge-watching. In Uber’s case, this means sending drivers their next fare opportunity before their current ride is even over.”

“Uber was increasingly concerned that many new drivers were leaving the platform before completing the 25 rides that would earn them a signing bonus. To stem that tide, Uber officials in some cities began experimenting with simple encouragement: You’re almost halfway there, congratulations!
While the experiment seemed warm and innocuous, it had in fact been exquisitely calibrated. The company’s data scientists had previously discovered that once drivers reached the 25-ride threshold, their rate of attrition fell sharply. And psychologists and video game designers have long known that encouragement toward a concrete goal can motivate people to complete a task.”

“For months, when drivers tried to log out, the app would frequently tell them they were only a certain amount away from making a seemingly arbitrary sum for the day, or from matching their earnings from that point one week earlier. The messages were intended to exploit another relatively widespread behavioral tic — people’s preoccupation with goals — to nudge them into driving longer. Over the past 20 years, behavioral economists have found evidence for a phenomenon known as income targeting, in which workers who can decide how long to work each day, like cabdrivers, do so with a goal in mind — say, $100 — much the way marathon runners try to get their time below four hours or three hours.”

“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.'”