Psychological reactions to human versus robotic job replacement

Abstract

Advances in robotics and artificial intelligence are increasingly enabling organizations to replace humans with intelligent machines and algorithms1. Forecasts predict that, in the coming years, these new technologies will affect millions of workers in a wide range of occupations, replacing human workers in numerous tasks2,3, but potentially also in whole occupations1,4,5. Despite the intense debate about these developments in economics, sociology and other social sciences, research has not examined how people react to the technological replacement of human labour. We begin to address this gap by examining the psychology of technological replacement. Our investigation reveals that people tend to prefer workers to be replaced by other human workers (versus robots); however, paradoxically, this preference reverses when people consider the prospect of their own job loss. We further demonstrate that this preference reversal occurs because being replaced by machines, robots or software (versus other humans) is associated with reduced self-threat. In contrast, being replaced by robots is associated with a greater perceived threat to one’s economic future. These findings suggest that technological replacement of human labour has unique psychological consequences that should be taken into account by policy measures (for example, appropriately tailoring support programmes for the unemployed).

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Fig. 1: Preferences for human and robotic replacement across studies 1a–c.
Fig. 2: Mediation diagram for study 5a (n = 85).

Data availability

Data from all of the studies reported in this paper are publicly available at https://osf.io/8nfc5/.

Code availability

Analyses were conducted with STATA 14.1 and with SPSS 23. No custom code was used. Code that supports the findings of this study is available from the corresponding author upon request.

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Acknowledgements

The authors received no specific funding for this work.

Author information

A.G., C.F. and S.P. designed the studies. A.G. and C.F. carried out the experiments. A.G. analysed the data. A.G., C.F. and S.P. wrote the paper.

Correspondence to Armin Granulo.

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Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests

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Peer review information: Primary Handling Editor: Marike Schiffer.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Methods, Supplementary Results and Supplementary Tables 1–5.

Reporting Summary

Supplementary Dataset 1a

Data for study 1a.

Supplementary Dataset 1b

Data for study 1b.

Supplementary Dataset 1c

Data for study 1c.

Supplementary Dataset 2

Data for study 2.

Supplementary Dataset 3a

Data for study 3a.

Supplementary Dataset 3b

Data for study 3b.

Supplementary Dataset 4

Data for study 4.

Supplementary Dataset 5a

Data for study 5a.

Supplementary Dataset 5b

Data for study 5b.

Supplementary Dataset 5c

Data for study 5c.

Supplementary Dataset 6

Data for study 6.

Supplementary Data 1

Data for additional study examining the relationship between robotic (versus human) replacement, future economic concerns and skill obsolescence.

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