We Would Rather Lose Our Jobs To Robots Than Humans, A Study Shows

The question has a surprising psychological factor for workers now and in the future.
Losing your job to a human stings more than getting replaced by a robot, research found.
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Losing your job to a human stings more than getting replaced by a robot, research found.

Losing a job can be stressful and demoralizing. Seeing your role replaced by automation is an additional stressor that more workers will have to contend with and worry about in the future.

Robots are already replacing people in some jobs. Apps take orders in chain restaurants, and some supermarkets use self-checkout machines to replace checkers. This is the new reality. The Brookings Institution predicts that 36 million Americans face a “high exposure to automation” in the coming decades, meaning they will have more than 70% of their role at risk of being substituted by artificial intelligence.

If you had to choose between getting replaced in your job by a robot or by another human, which would you pick? That’s the hard choice that researchers at the Technical University of Munich and Erasmus University in Rotterdam posed to almost 2,000 respondents in a study published in the journal Nature Human Behavior.

Turns out, thanks to our egos, we take job loss harder when it’s our fellow human replacing us, not robots. Most of us would actually rather lose our jobs to robots than other humans if we were forced to choose.

Our egos prefer getting replaced by a bot we can’t be compared to.

In a series of studies, researchers Armin Granulo, Christoph Fuchs and Stefano Puntoni asked participants to imagine scenarios in which they were employees being replaced by modern software.

In one study scenario, a large manufacturing firm was reorganizing and some of the existing employees were going to lose their jobs. To achieve the reorganization goals, participants were told, the company had two options: Replace existing employees either with new employees or by robots that could do the tasks automatically.

When they were observers of this scenario, 67% of participants preferred to see the employees replaced by fellow humans rather than by robots. But when participants were told that their own job was at risk, the stakes got more personal. The majority (60%) said they would prefer getting replaced by a robot rather than a fellow human.

In another exercise, researchers measured how sad, frustrated or angry participants felt about the replacement scenario. People losing jobs to robots got a more negative reaction when participants were observers, but when it was their own fictional job on the line, participants said they were more upset about getting replaced by a human.

Why does getting replaced by a fellow colleague seemingly upset us more than getting replaced by a robot? The researchers suggest this contradiction makes sense once you consider human egos.

“It’s much harder to compare yourself to a robot than to another person,” Granulo, the study’s lead author, told HuffPost. “Your identity is really threatened if you are replaced by somebody else, because it’s easy to compare yourself to another person and think, ‘Hey, why is he better?’” In other words, when a colleague with similar human skills is picked to replace you, you may question your own abilities in a way that you would not if replaced by software.

Fuchs said we may have different motives when we are given the opportunity to give someone else employment over a robot, without risking our own role. From a safe observational distance, we tend to think, “Well, it’s better that humans have jobs,” Fuchs said.

“The technological replacement of human labor has unique psychological consequences, and these consequences should be taken into account,” Granulo said. “The psychological effects of people’s self-worth, how they think about their future and their skills... it matters why people lose their jobs.”

It’s important to remember that automation is not a faceless robot coming for your job.

Losing your job sucks. But research shows that we can handle hard business decisions like layoffs when we know that the process was fair and we could give input into the process and had ample notice. If you want to change someone’s job with automation, it shouldn’t just happen out of nowhere.

But, unfortunately, that’s what some workers who are actually experiencing automation feel is happening. A November report from the think tank New America was based on 40 in-depth interviews with grocery, food, retail and administrative workers on the frontlines of automation. For them, automation was not a faceless inevitability but a conscious decision made by human managers.

“We heard, over and over, that employees felt that the companies they worked for were looking for ways to cut costs, that they were putting shareholder value over the wellbeing of their workers,” said Molly Kinder, the lead author of the report and a David M. Rubenstein Fellow at the Brookings Institution. “A lot of them, when they talked about a decision to put in a self-checkout lane, this was not inevitable. They felt there was a choice their employer made, and what was driving this choice was this emphasis on profits.”

We don’t necessarily have a beef with robots, in other words, but we do have one with managers who make us feel like our contributions don’t matter. “The technology itself is not the issue; it’s the extent to which workers are involved in the process and how it ultimately impacts their job satisfaction, their job quality and their job security,” Kinder said.

Take it from Naomi, an assistant manager of an apartment complex who was interviewed in the New America report. She felt a lack of agency over software changes at her job. “[New employees] won’t come to me for benefit questions anymore because it’s all there through ADP,” a human resources software program, she said. “They could get rid of me and eliminate my job. The most annoying thing is that your fate is in someone else’s hands.”