Replace me with a robot, not a human!


New research has shown that people would rather their fellow workers be replaced by other humans rather than robots, but paradoxically, this opinion reverses when concerning their own jobs. This psychological contradiction has implications for unemployment support schemes today, according to Professor Stefano Puntoni, Christopher Fuchs and Armin Granulo, in a fascinating article published in the Nature Human Behaviour journal.

It’s no secret that modern developments in AI and robotics are putting some of our biggest employment sectors at risk. With robotic assembly lines already replacing human factory workers, companies like Google or Tesla have their sights set on the transport industry.

It should be no surprise, then, that new studies have shown that people generally prefer workers to be replaced by other workers than robots. Professor Stefano Puntoni and his associates believe this to be consistent with established research on prosocial behaviour, indicating that most people care about the well-being of other individuals. Since surveys conducted on a large sample representing the EU population have shown that most people think robots steal people’s jobs, human replacement is seen as the better alternative.

Interestingly, when asked to consider their own jobs, the majority of people in the studies would rather be replaced by a robot than another worker. The researchers believe that when one’s own job is at risk, social comparison becomes a more prominent factor. It is generally seen as less self-threatening to ‘lose’ to a robot, rather than another person. Therefore, even though being replaced by a robot is more threatening for the worker’s future due to their skill obsolescence, the short-term threat to the worker’s self-image and ego by being replaced by another worker plays a more important role.

The results of this research strongly indicate that support schemes should differ for workers replaced by humans and robots. When replaced by humans, workers’ feelings of competence and self-worth should be bolstered, to help support their mental health and motivation to look for new work. However, when replaced by a robot, the priority should shift greatly to retraining and developing new skills for the worker, to help them overcome their technical obsolescence as soon as possible. This is especially important for older workers, who are more likely to leave the labour market upon being replaced by a robot.

Ultimately, this research demonstrates the importance of understanding the influence of AI and robotics on the psychology of the modern worker. Support networks for employees across all industries will have to adapt to the subtle changes that these technologies bring to our workforce.