Uber Plays Psychological Tricks on its Drivers: What should you learn from that?

The New York Times has an interesting article about how ride-sharing company Uber plays psychological tricks on its drivers to manipulate them into doing things that are good for Uber, but not necessarily good for the drivers.

It’s a long article, but worth reading. Even if you don’t agree with the New York Times’ slant (that Uber is being evil), there are still enough interesting points in the article.

Here is one example of manipulation: when Uber wants more drivers in a particular area (to avoid surge pricing – so that customers get rides in that area without having to pay more), Uber’s managers send text messages to drivers encouraging them to go to that area. This doesn’t always work, so this is what the managers do:

Some local managers who were men went so far as to adopt a female persona for texting drivers, having found that the uptake was higher when they did.

“‘Laura’ would tell drivers: ‘Hey, the concert’s about to let out. You should head over there,’” said John P. Parker, a manager in Uber’s Dallas office in 2014 and 2015, referring to one of the personas. “We have an overwhelmingly male driver population.”

Uber acknowledged that it had experimented with female personas to increase engagement with drivers.

And there are many more in the article.

Here are some interesting takeaways for me:

  • If you aren’t aware of the findings of behavioral economics, how those techniques are used in gamification, how big companies are using these tricks to manipulate their customers (i.e. you), and in Uber’s case their contractors (i.e. the drivers), then you really need to read up.
  • This trend is going to increase. Everybody, from your social networks (e.g. Facebook) to your TV (e.g. Netflix) to your shop (e.g. Amazon) are trying hard to manipulate you, and it appears, soon your employer will start doing the same.
  • It appears to me that one of the most important things we need to teach our children is the ability to resist such manipulation. We teach them to avoid smoking and to drink in moderation via strong messaging. Maybe we need to do the same with apps.
  • Throughout the article, there is a mention of the fact that “Uber experimented with” some or the other (manipulation) feature. This is an extremely important aspect of modern software/app development. It is called A/B testing, and I am surprised that most people – including senior executives in the software industry are not aware of it. In the old days, if a company needed to decide whether to introduce some new feature in the software (e.g. give the driver a pop-up message indicating how close they’re to getting a bonus), and if yes, what should it’s configuration (at what percentage of completion should the driver get the pop-up message), the experienced people in the company would take a judgment call. However, modern software development prefers a more data driven approach: implement the feature, expose it to a subset of users, and compare these users’ behavior to that of others on various metrics. This helps you decide what features to implement in the software.
  • Overall, I do feel that the New York Times has taken a rather harsh anti-Uber stand in the article. I mean, the neither are the drivers babies, nor is Uber a monopoly, so it is unclear to me why Uber acting in its self-interest is so evil. However, there is a danger that if Uber continues to succeed and competitors like Lyft don’t, Uber will become a monopoly and that could be very dangerous.

The article is interesting for another reason – instead of generic photos or illustrations, the article actually has interactive simulations of the situations it is talking about (e.g. customer demand, driver availability, waiting times etc.), and you can actually modify the parameters and see their effect. I hope we see more of these kinds of intelligent interactive illustrations.

Apply for the Maheshwari Scholar Awards 2016

This is for the Maheshwaris (Marwadis) who might be reading this.

If you know someone who has completed an advanced academic degree this year (PhD, MD/DM/DNB, MS/MBA/PGDM from a top university, or scored well in a competitive exam like CA/ICWA/CS/CFA or IAS/UPSC, please have them nominate themselves for the “Maheshwari Scholar Awards” that are given every year by the Maheshwari Vidya Prasarak Mandal, Pune. Deadline for applying is end of October. More details are here: http://mvpm.org/upcoming-events/

Why?

Because it is important to have such role models for the youngsters in the Marwadi community.

As a community, we are not really known for valuing education. Some sections of the community value education, but there are lots who actually look down on eductaion. Jumping straight into the family business instead of “wasting time in college” is quite a common occurrence.

So, people who have outstanding academic achievements should be highlighted.

I can vouch for the fact that the selection procedure is extremely well-designed. The jury consists of seriously accomplished people from each of the major academic fields, who are actually qualified to judge the achievements of the applicants. (I was a jury member last year, and I was one of the least qualified people on the committee.) I can also vouch for the fact that the selection is purely on the basis of academic merit and there is absolutely no interference in the selection procedure from the MVPM management or sponsors.

If you know someone who completed their degree in the last one year, please urge them to apply. Don’t underestimate the effect such role models will have on the next generation.

And if you have Maheshwari/Marwadi friends on WhatsApp/Facebook/Twitter, please re-share this.

My Gap Year after 12th Std

(For the past few years, I have been encouraging 12th Std. students to take a gap year, and I usually give the example of Nishchala Bhandari who took a gap year and was very glad to have done it. For the benefit of other students, I asked her to write an article about her experiences.

This is the article is written by Nishchala, who took a gap year after doing her 12th Std in Pune, India, got a lot of interesting and valuable experiences, and later joined New York University (NYU), where she is now a second year student. She hopes that this article will nudge other 12th Std. students and their parents to consider taking a year off before college.

Update: After this article was published, Nishchala had this further update: “My experience with the gap year also greatly helped me get scholarship for NYU. In case any undergrad students are looking for how to get their applications to stand out in order to attain scholarships, a gap year might be an interesting place to start.”)

When I finished 12th grade, I had no idea what I wanted to do. The year seemed to have spun into such a blur of fast forward motion—with relentless examinations, endless stress, unnerving conversations with adults on my future—that by the time it was time to apply for college, I felt lost. I didn’t feel mature or skilled enough to leave home and jump into the even more tiresome rat race of college. I remember struggling to write my CommonApp essay in October—I felt like I was missing something.

Around December 2013, about a month before college applications were due, my dad—knowing how lost I felt—suggested that I take a gap year: a year off before starting college—no school; no classes; just a year to take a break and do whatever I wanted. Initially I was completely opposed to the idea. Why would I waste a year of my life? To top it off, I didn’t personally know anyone who had ever taken a gap year—what would people think of it? What would colleges think of it? It seemed like an outrageous thing to do. But finally my dad convinced me to read up on it before jumping to a decision.

Researching online on the gap year shifted my thinking. Although a gap year wasn’t all that popular, there were quite a few people who had done it, and their accomplishments that they published online were inspiring. In fact—and to my surprise—I found that many colleges in the US encourage students to defer their admissions and take a year off before starting college. Big shot universities like Harvard and MIT actually write, in their admission letters itself, that students should seriously consider taking a year off (you can read more about what Harvard has to say about gap years here). Harvard writes that its students who took a gap year “are effusive in their praise. Many speak of their year away as a ‘life-altering’ experience or a ‘turning point,’ and most feel that its full value can never be measured and will pay dividends the rest of their lives.(…) Virtually all would do it again” (Harvard). After filling out notebooks with lists weighing the pros and cons of a gap year, and after reading as many articles I could get my hands on, I felt inspired and finally decided that I too would take a year off before going to college.

The decision was definitely not easy; there were times when I questioned whether or not I had made the right choice. The majority of the reactions that I got from my relatives and friends was coated with absolute disapproval. And the constant Facebook updates of my friends celebrating their newly found college lives only made it worse and made me feel like I was behind. But by the end of the year, I felt so refreshed and fulfilled that I too could proudly say that my gap year was a ‘life altering’ decision.

In the larger scheme of things, a year here or there doesn’t really matter. Of course though, taking a gap year has its risks. If you don’t use it well you might fall into a year long pattern of laziness which can be difficult to get out of. But if you do use it well, the effects can be rewarding! Since college applications are right around the corner, it is the perfect time for students to think about taking a year off. To help with this thinking, I’ve written about my year as an example. Although—please keep in mind—there is no such thing as a “typical” gap year since you can do pretty much anything; the sky is the limit! Below are brief write ups about the activities that I did during my gap year, and my overall experiences:

Fellowship with Make A Difference

In 11th and 12th grade, I used to volunteer as a teacher with the NGO Make A Difference (MAD); I would teach English to a class of 10 underprivileged children at the SOS center in Pune. So during my gap year (starting from early June 2014), I decided to take this a step further and applied to lead the education program—called ‘Ed Support’—for MAD in my city. My responsibilities as Ed Support fellow entailed recruiting a team of 60 volunteer teachers and 8 volunteer interns. Our team worked over the academic year (2014-2015) to teach English, Math and Science to approximately 120+ underprivileged children in shelter homes in Pune.

My fellowship journey has undoubtedly been one of the most brilliant and meaningful experiences I’ve been a part of. I had never before led a team at that scale, and I had never before felt like I was making such a positive impact on society at that scale. The sheer work that was required to establish the base for MAD Pune—we had about 850+ applications in 2014—meant that almost every day of my year went into working on the Ed Support program: conducting teacher trainings, interviewing applicants, reviewing classes etc. The journey was challenging, even frustrating many times, since the problems of poverty that the children were trapped in seemed too deep and too complex for a bunch of volunteers in their 20s to solve. But the experience taught us compassion, optimism and resilience, and how to take challenges one day at a time. In addition to this I got to scratch the surface of positive leadership—how to connect with people, motivate a team, skillfully resolve disputes, how to innovate—and learn brilliant skills that would help me throughout life.

Part Time Job at “Expression & Freedom Speech and Drama Academy”

In addition to my work with MAD, I was doing a part time job with E&F Academy (from February 2014 onward). I worked as a teacher assistant, and mentored several classes of students ranging from ages 8 to 13 who were learning poetry and drama. I wrote the annual script for the drama class, helped design the annual poetry, speech and drama curriculum, created weekly lesson plans for classes as well as designed the annual poetry book which was a collation of poems written by the students across the year. The classes provided a spectacular platform for me to channel and share my passion for drama and poetry; I learned the art of how to make teaching more creative and interesting by incorporating the magic of theater and poems. Furthermore, mentoring the classes helped me loose my inhibitions and transformed me into a more confident, creative and self-aware person.

Working on bits of the E&F curricula was a part of most of my days over the year. Having a paying part time job heightened my sense of responsibility, organization and accountability; it was not only an invaluable experience to include in my college applications, but it also equipped me with life skills which will stay with me when I get a professional job later on.

Shadowing PhD Students Majoring in the Field of Biological Sciences

For about a month and a half (from February-March 2014), I went to Chandigarh to shadow PhD students who were researching in the field of biology. After 12th grade, one of the potential majors I was thinking of pursuing was biological sciences, but I didn’t know exactly what that would entail, nor did I know which field of biological science I wanted to pursue; I wanted to get a first hand experience of what exactly researching in the field of biological science meant. What would I do on a daily basis? Would I have to work alone or with people? What kind of lifestyle would I lead? What kind of jobs could I get with a biology major, and how would they look like on a day to day basis?

To attempt to answer these questions, I went to IISER and Punjab University where I met with students pursuing Masters and PhDs in different fields of science. I got a chance to shadow, interact and ask them questions about their research experience and overall experience in their careers. The exposure was eye opening; research in the field of biology was extremely different from what I had in mind—it was nothing like what I imagined I would be doing when I used to study biology in school. I quickly realized that research was not an area that matched my personality, and perhaps it was time for me to think of a different field, or perhaps a different major entirely.

The year of down-time I got, away from the conventional lifestyle of school and classes and college applications, gave me perspective. Having that extra time to heavily focus on helping the underprivileged—a cause that I now know I want to continue working for in my career—and getting that extra time to teach my hobbies to my students at E&F—as well as learn from them—would not have been possible without the gap year I took. I felt like I had accomplished something real and meaningful for the first time in my life.

By the end of the year I felt rejuvenated, bold, and better equipped to handle whatever was to come next. I was ready to jump back into the rat race of fluctuating GPAs, examinations, deadlines, projects, college major selection, identity crises and everything in between. Even more, the time off made me feel more connected with myself; the choices I made over the year, the kinds of activities I engaged in and my journey of leading such a large team sculpted me and taught me skills and lessons that no school textbook could ever teach.

I remember hearing a quote from a play that went something like this: “It’s important to know what you want to be when your grow up, but it’s far more important to know who you want to be.” In our monotonous routines of school, examinations and classes, we often forget this. My year off implored me to introspect on what kind of person I was, what I wanted to do, and where I wanted to go. And now that I’m done with my first year of studying in New York University, I feel a transformation within me, and I can confidently say that I made the right investment in myself by choosing to take that year off.

So whether you ultimately decide to take a gap year or not, I urge you to—at the very least—consider the value it may add to you; the possibilities of all that you can do with your year might mark the beginning of a journey truly exciting.

Useful Links

A few websites I found helpful while researching on gap years:

About the Author – Nishchala Bhandari

Nishchala is going to begin her sophomore year in NYU. Her major is undecided, but she’s leaning towards Economics. She loves to photograph, listen to music, bake, read and travel. She is also weirdly obsessed with staplers. If you have any questions for her, you can contact her at nishchalab@gmail.com.