Study: Humans Less Upset at Being Replaced by Robots Than by People
August 09, 2019      

While the debate over whether robots and automation will threaten workers’ jobs continues, a new study by the Technical University of Munich and Erasmus University in Rotterdam suggest that people would rather be displaced through automation than by another person.

As part of a study to see how workers would be react to being replaced through technology, business researchers at the universities tested various scenarios with more than 2,000 people from several countries in Europe and North America through 11 experimental studies.

Christoph Fuchs

The results, published in the Nature Human Behaviour journal, showed that in principle, most people view it more favorable when workers are replaced by other people, as opposed to work being turned over to robots or intelligent software. However, when their own employment is involved, the majority of workers found it less upsetting to see their own jobs to go robots than human replacements. Researchers suggested that being replaced by a robot or software poses less of a threat to a person’s feeling of self-worth. In addition, the effect was seen even when test subjects assumed they were being replaced by colleagues qualified to use artificial intelligence in their work.

Losing jobs to ‘bots less painful

“Even when unemployment results from the introduction of new technologies, people still judge it in a social context,” said Christoph Fuchs, a professor of the TUM School of Management, and one of the authors of the study. “It is important to understand these psychological effects when trying to manage the massive changes in the working world to minimize disruptions in society.”

The authors said insights from the study could help when designing programs for the unemployed. “For people who have lost their job to a robot, boosting their self-esteem will be less of a priority,” Fuchs said. “In that case, it is more important to teach them new skills that will reduce their concerns about losing out to robots in the long term.”

In addition, Fuchs said that the study could serve as a starting point for other research about economic topics. “It is conceivable that employee representatives’ responses to job losses attributed to automation will tend to be weaker than when other causes are involved, for example outsourcing,” he said.