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.

Westernized Treatment for Depression vs Rwanda

Found this little gem on my newsfeed today.

A person in Rwanda, talking to a western writer, Andrew Solomon, about his experience with western mental health and depression, had this to say:

“We had a lot of trouble with western mental health workers who came here immediately after the genocide and we had to ask some of them to leave.

They came and their practice did not involve being outside in the sun where you begin to feel better. There was no music or drumming to get your blood flowing again. There was no sense that everyone had taken the day off so that the entire community could come together to try to lift you up and bring you back to joy. There was no acknowledgement of the depression as something invasive and external that could actually be cast out again.

Instead they would take people one at a time into these dingy little rooms and have them sit around for an hour or so and talk about bad things that had happened to them. We had to ask them to leave.”

The second paragraph, especially the last line, was slightly mind-blowing, for me.

The full podcast is here.


What is love?

Not an easy question to answer. But it does get asked often. I asked this question on my Facebook page and got a bunch of really interesting responses. Worth checking out.

In response I decided to list down a bunch of random quotes related to love.

I want to start with this:

Love is like
a pineapple,
sweet and

  • A grook by Piet Hein

Some people think that is silly, but I like it nevertheless.

But I did find one definition that is concise, but seems to capture a lot of the most important characteristics of love:

Love is that condition in which the happiness of another person is essential to your own.

  • Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land

This definition rather works for me. Not perfect, but covers a lot of cases, when you really think about it.

I’m not talking about the infatuation that people feel when the first fall in love. Here one of my Facebook status update from a few months ago:

People talk of “falling in love” as if it is a disease they catch. That’s not love, that’s infatuation. And that’s temporary – goes away in an year or two. If love could be described as a “falling in”, how can you promise to love someone forever, if the act did not involve any judgment or a decision on your part? Love is something you have to choose to do intentionally, and commit to doing against all adversities.

  • Adapted from Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving, and a forgettable 1990s movies called Boomerang.

While you’re on this topic, this brainpickings article on why friendship is a greater gift than romantic love is a must read.

and related:

Love is blind; friendship closes its eyes.

  • Friedrich Nietzsche

Anyway, I’ll close out this random post with a bunch of random quotes/poems related to love:

I cannot bear to put away the bamboo sleeping mat.
The night I brought you home, I watched you roll it out.

  • Yuan Chen, 8th Century Chinese poet, talking about love

We accept the love we think we deserve.

― Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower

I do not crave nirvana.
I feel the embrace of freedom in a thousand bonds of delight.
No, I will never shut the doors of my senses […]
Yes, all my illusions will burn into illumination of joy,
and all my desires ripen into fruits of love.

  • Rabindranath Tagore in the Gitanjali

Kisses are a better fate than wisdom.

-e.e. cummings

Ghalib points out that it’s not all happiness and roses in love:

Phir hue hain gawaah-e-ishq talab
Ashkbaari ka hukm jaari hai


Again the witnesses of love have been summoned
An order to shed tears has been passed

  • Ghalib

Love is the word used to label the sexual excitement of the young, the habituation of the middle-aged, and the mutual dependence of the old.

  • John Ciardi

“Love is blind” …. “Not true. Otherwise lingerie wouldn’t be so popular”

  • Not sure where I stole this from.

A dad talking about ‘Dad Jokes’: “I think at some level my kids know that each time they groan or say ‘oh dad!’ to my admittedly pathetic dad jokes, they’re really saying ‘I love you too'”

invisible joy
drenches my soul
I love you Absolut

Adapted from here

She who responds to “What do you want for your birthday” with “If you really loved me, you would know what I want” is going to get a Playstation 3.

Stolen from here