Psychology of automation: how robots affect our mental wellbeing

As machines begin to take on office tasks previously done by human workers, what do people really think about robots making us redundant? And could this help how workplace change is managed?

Automation is increasingly becoming one of the defining features of the age. As machines become increasingly capable, they can take more and more of the work of humans and this has created a significant backlash as humans are replaced. At the moment, many claims are circulating around what impact this will have on human workers – will they be replaced entirely? Will machines owned by a few take up the vast majority of the workload of the planet?

The truth is likely to be somewhere between the extremes. Machines will likely take on significant proportions of work where they have an advantage due to large amounts of data or repeated, fast movements while humans will continue doing work that requires flexibility and adaptability of approach. Some tasks within jobs are therefore likely to become automated, but it is unlikely that human workers will ever become entirely obsolete.

Impact on people

Accelerated by the uncertainty, these factors have led to a great deal of interest in how automation affects humans. Research has examined many of the facets of automation’s impact on people, including on which industries are most likely to be affected by automation, which demographics of workers will be hardest hit and even what effect it has on worker’s health. An area that is receiving more and more attention is the psychology of automation. Scientists are increasingly investigating how automation affects the mental health, attitudes and thoughts of the people most directly involved.

One such study, published in the academic journal Nature Human Behaviour, has looked at the effect that automation has on people’s attitudes to being replaced. Conducted during 2019, this study surveyed almost 2,000 participants across North America and Europe. Participants were asked to imagine a range of different scenarios which varied according to whether it was the respondent’s own job or the jobs of others that were threatened by automation. The study found that while people tend to prefer the jobs of others to be replaced by humans, when it came to their own jobs, people would actually rather be replaced by machine than another human.

Strong part of identity

This somewhat odd finding has been suggested to be a consequence of how humans (at least in North America and Europe) think about their work. Work in these areas has traditionally been strongly bound to an individual’s sense of worth and forms a strong part of identity. The study authors suggest that this is why people are more threatened by other people taking their jobs than robots: humans fundamentally have more impact on our sense of who we are and our relative worth than machines do.

This finding is important for managing the entry of machines into the workplace. There will certainly be an amount of automation in almost every workplace (some are already some way down this path) and the way that this is managed will be a critical factor for business success in the future. Managing employee redundancy and movement into new roles will need to bear in mind influences like the type of redundancy on the wellbeing of employees and also consider how they can best prepare people for either redundancy or movement into a new role and the effect that will have on them.

Arraz Makhzani is a workplace analyst at UnWork. The study was conducted by the Technical University of Munich (TUM) and Erasmus University in Rotterdam and has been published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour. Read the full paperhere
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