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Better being replaced by men or machines?

Threats of automation (?)

Threats of job replacement has been covered extensively these days. A 2019 study by think tank Brookings Institution conclude that about 25% of US jobs will be highly impacted by automation and that more than 70% of task content is threatened by substitution in the years to come.

As you may have noticed, personally, I’m a robo-enthusiast and generally in favor of software and automation that makes the life of people easier, safer and more pleasurable. Still, it’s safe to say that an increased rate of automation will have tremendous effects on our workplace and societies as a whole.

Psychological Reactions to Job Replacement

Researchers from Technical University of Munich an Erasmus University Rotterdam have published a series of studies on psychological reactions to job replacement earlier this month.

Conducting eleven different studies, the research team examined how people react to job loss either due to replacement by robots and automation or by other human workers.

Varying study participants, presented scenarios, experimental set-up and statistical methodology, they present highly generalizable findings that all come to similar conclusions.

… But it’s different for me

The scientists demonstrate that people – in general – tend to prefer job replacement by human workers compared to jobs being taken by robots or software. However, their findings tell a completely different story when it’s about participants’ own jobs and occupations.

In other words, if people are directly and individually affected by job replacement, they prefer being replaced by a robot. In contrast, from an observer point of view, they tend to prefer job replacement by other humans.

Infographic on robot job replacement by Wired

How I feel about it now vs. what it means for my future

Next to their results on replacement preference, findings on the emotional world of the study participants are similar. People tend to have more negative emotions when replaced by other human workers compared to robots. At the same time, from an objective standpoint – when other workers are threatened by job replacement – they feel more sad, angry and frustrated in the robot replacement condition.

The researchers found similar results no matter if the participants should imagine working as lawyers, professional translators or warehouse workers. To increase their ecological validity, they even conducted research with people who actually lost their job within the last two years and came to the same conclusions.

Curious why the preference of replacement reverses when it’s about one’s own job, they further examined variables such as self-threat and threat to one’s economic future.

With items like “Which option would make you feel more devalued?” and “Which option would make it more difficult for you to find another job?” they tried to shed light on the unique psychological consequences of robotic replacement. They demonstrate that being replaced by a robot is less threatening to one’s self-identity.

At the same time, robotic replacement made the participants worry more on their economic future. Next, their regression analysis revealed that participants prefer the replacement option that poses a lower self-threat, which is the case for robotic or software replacement. In other words, feeling devalued has a higher impact on replacement preference than one’s economic prospects.

Listen to McKinsey Global Institute’s view on
automation’s effect on jobs, skills and wages

Comparing to robots and artificial intelligence?

The scientists even go a step further by examining why other human workers lead to more self-threat (versus robots or software). In one experiment they presented the participants scenarios in which they were either replaced by (1) an artificial intelligence software, (2) another human worker using AI software or (3) another human worker (relying on their personal abilities).

There were significant differences between the three conditions concerning the experienced self-threat as well as the degree of social comparison. In other words, other human workers that solely rely on their personal capabilities are more likely a target for social comparison than an artificial intelligence software.

Because people tend to compare themselves less with software, replacement by a robot or AI is less of a threat for our self-identity. On the other hand, being replaced by another human worker really hurts.

What’s next?

To sum up, the study is the first of its kind that is able to demonstrate unique psychological consequences for robotic vs. human replacement. With these research insights in mind, policy makers and corporations should re-think their offering and support for human workers that are threatened by automation.

Nicholas Davis, Head of Society and Innovation at the World Economic Forum on Universal Basic Income as a practical solution for robot job replacement

Granulo, A., Fuchs, C., & Puntoni, S. (2019). Psychological reactions to human versus robotic job replacement. Nature Human Behaviour.