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.

If you’re a gay student in India, should you come out? When? To Whom?

Being gay is tough. Being gay in India is even tougher. Which is why many gay people in India remain in the closet most of their lives.

However, I strongly believe every gay person should come out, at least to the people they’re closest to. Having to hide such an important part of one’s identity, from everybody, for one’s entire life, is unhealthy, dangerous, and not a situation I would wish anybody to have to go through.

A few weeks ago, I read an interesting article in the Pune Mirror by Sanyukta Dharmadhakari, about openly gay students on Pune college campuses. I was quite happy to find out that there is increasing acceptance of gay students on our campuses.

So I began to wonder – if there is a closeted gay student, should he/she be encouraged to come out?

I have little or no expertise in this matter. I have at least 4 good friends who are gay, I stayed for 2 years with a housemate who was gay, and I have attended my friends’ lesbian wedding. So I am a little more informed than the average person in India – but, to get an answer to my question, I decided to get the help of experts.

Sorry, this article has become a little long, so here’s a helpful table of contents. You don’t have to read all the parts, and you don’t have to read them in order.

How do you first find out that you’re gay? What does it feel like? I asked my friend Venkatesh Iyengar, who grew up in India, and who’s now openly gay, to answer this question. This is his experience:

I discovered I was gay when I was about 10. In school, I found myself excited by the other boys in class, but before I could comment about this to anyone, I noticed other boys were similarly excited by the girls in our class, and this puzzled me greatly. This was my first sign that I was different. I withdrew into a shell and became an introvert for many years to follow – a great defense mechanism at the time. I’m glad I realized that I was different before I discussed the issue with anyone. Otherwise I would have been accidentally “outed” before I was ready for it, and that wouldn’t have been good for me.

Owing to societal reaction to homosexuality, more so in India, we go through a lot of intense emotions early on, and foremost among them is fear, intense loneliness, self-guilt, self-hate, a desperate need to feel a sense of belonging …. these are very normal feelings, and these behaviours are learnt and reinforced over many years. Consequently accepting one is gay usually takes just as long if not longer. It starts with first understanding that what you are is ‘different’, not ‘wrong’, and truly believing that. I repeat – truly believing that – because that is by far the most important part of acceptance. Truly believing enables you to forgive yourself for whatever transgressions you think you committed, to love yourself without feeling the need to apologize for it, to say “I am gay” loudly with your head held high, and looking others in the eye, and to really feel like you do belong in any group of people. All this does not happen overnight. In my opinion two things are very key to getting through this process – having friends and/or family that will love you regardless, and meeting other gay people and having role models who are also gay.

Nothing can replace knowing that someone else has been through what you are going through, and especially knowing there are both famous and not-so-famous people just like you. Telling people you are gay is just a part of the process, maybe even an optional part. While this is what people refer to when they talk of “coming out”, the real coming out is acceptance of yourself, and your ability to think of your sexual orientation as another personal quality, like, say, the colour of your eyes.

It will happen. With time. And there is help – you don’t have to deal with it alone. Talking to an LGBT group or counselor is the first step. It is not easy – it will likely include some inner turmoil and compromises but it always gets better after that. Accepting yourself and coming out is an incredibly liberating feeling, one that I think everyone should experience.

This is not necessarily the only way that you find out you’re gay. Also, the age when you’ll find out is more likely to be closer to 13-15. But the feelings – of confusion, turmoil, guilt, self-hate, intense loneliness, fear – are very common. Just remember, you are different, not wrong, and you’re not alone.

So, on to the main question of this article: If a gay student is closeted, would you encourage him/her to come out? Why or why not?

I asked this question to Bindumadhav Khire, gay rights activist, and founder of Samapathik Trust, an NGO that works on LGBT issues. Here are his answers:

The question is coming out to whom? To their friends? Family? Teachers? Public? My advice is that they should (when they become Adults) come out to some good NGO like Samapathik Trust (Pune) or The Humsafar Trust (Mumbai). Their confidentiality will be respected (they need not give their real name) and they will find LGBTI community members who have a +ve image of themselves. They can also then seek counseling on various issues.

I feel they should not come out to their friends/family/teachers/public till their studies are over and they get a good job and become financially independent. In case they come out too early, and they are rejected by the family, they have nothing to fall back on. At a young age they are more vulnerable to blackmail, sexual exploitation, unsafe sex, alcohol/drug use, etc. as they have no support systems for them to help them cope with their sexuality. They also have no role models hence they are very vulnerable. The Trust is a good support system for them and they should avail of it.

If they insist on coming out, they should not come out till they are at least 18 years complete. As an adult they are legally in charge of their lifestyles.

In case he/she needs help, or information, or counseling, or therapy, what resources exist in Pune?

They can approach Samapathik Trust and based on their needs (e.g. depression etc.) we can refer them to a gay-friendly psychiatrist. In case they have been into unsafe sexual practices we can – with their consent – get them tested for HIV; if they have acquired Sexually Transmitted Infections we can provide medicines to them (as per advice of the doctor). If they have been sexually assaulted we can assist them to approach the police.

Where should he/she go for more information.

In Bombay, get in touch with Humsafar Trust.

Venkatesh Iyengar adds: In Bangalore, Good As You is a wonderful resource. They have a terrible website that doesn’t even load most of the time, so the best thing to do is go to a meeting and then get added to their Facebook group, which, for obvious reasons, is not searchable. There is also a YahooGroups group, and an email id that is monitored regularly – goodasyoublr@googlemail.com

I further asked Bhooshan Shukla, child psychiatrist, whether he would like to add to what Bindu said, and here is his response:

I agree with Bindu on most issues. My take is –

Coming out is a long and layered process. First is coming out to oneself. Accepting own sexuality, gathering data about it from safe sources like Samapathik trust and the internet. Once the person is okay to a reasonable extent, they should look for friends / family sources who can understand them better. Fortunately, this subject is all over the media so there are ample chances of discussion and knowing people’s views. When in doubt hold back, would me my rule of thumb because coming out is irreversible.

Another important issue is to recognize that sexuality is one part of life and difficulties in one part can not be allowed to take over whole life. Getting counseling help for distress is important.

Financial independence is very important and becomes supreme in a homophobic culture like ours.

Not jumping into indiscriminate sexual adventures is also important. I see many gay adolescents and youngsters exploring their sexuality prematurely. Leaving themselves exposed to ridicule, blackmail, abuse, and even mental slavery.

Lastly, after coming out to family and finding non-acceptance there, do not get into angry self destructive mode or even trying to shock and shame the family by behaviour that is embarrassing for close family members, especially mothers. It is important to realize that the family really struggles to come to terms with minority sexualities and needs a lot of time. Severing ties with the family makes one vulnerable to temporary and exploitative relationships.

Coming out is a process stretched over almost 10 years, i.e. from age of 13-15 to almost 25. It needs to be paced properly. This is the price one is forced to pay in our society. It is unfair but that is how it is.

So, here’s the simplified summary:

  • First, come out to yourself. Accept your sexuality.
  • Then, come out to a good NGO, (in Pune: Samapathik Trust, in Mumbai: Humsafar, in Bangalore: Good As You), and/or a gay-friendly psychiatrist
  • Then, with the help of the above, figure out the right time to come out to the others, including your family, friends, and others.
  • Be careful. People can be cruel; you’re vulnerable and easily exploitable

Being gay is difficult. Don’t do it without help.

I don’t have all the answers. Neither does anyone else. But asking the questions, exploring the possibilities, and having a discussion helps.

Please give your thoughts, suggestions, questions in the comments section below. If you have a question, ask in the comments section below and I’ll ensure that one of the experts featured above will answer it.

I know this is a sensitive topic, so please feel free to leave a comment anonymously. (Just pick a random username, and set your email address to <your_random_username>@example.com – you can also use your real email address, in which case, I will see it, but nobody else will see that email address so your identity will still remain hidden.) Or you can get in touch with Bindumadhav Khire via the Samapathik trust or the help line (details above), Dr. Bhooshan Shukla via his clinic, or Venkatesh Iyengar via email – they’ll all be happy to help, while respecting your confidentiality.

Appendix: Definitions, Misconceptions, and Clarifications

This section is not a part of the main article, so please feel free to skip to the comments section below.

Not everyone is familiar with the various concepts and terms related
to homosexuality, and I’ve noticed that often people have
misconceptions so here are some basics:

  • A homosexual or a gay person is someone who is sexually/romantically attracted to others of the same gender.
  • A homosexual who has not yet disclosed his/her homosexuality is said to be “closeted” or “in the closet”.
  • A homosexual who (voluntarily) discloses his/her sexual orientation is said to “come out”. Most homosexuals who come out, come out in stages – _i.e._ they initially disclose their sexuality to only a few people, and then over the course of many years, might disclose it to more and more people (or not). So for example, a gay person might first only come out to a psychologist/therapist/counselor, then later he might come out to a few close friends, then they might come out to their parents, _etc._ Some homosexuals never come out at all.
  • Both males and females can be gay/homosexual. A female homosexual is called a lesbian. There is no separate term for a male homosexual.
  • Feminine behavior is not necessarily an indicator of male homosexuality. It is not necessary that necessary that someone exhibiting feminine behavior is gay, nor is it necessary that a gay man will exhibit feminine behavior.
  • Lots of people in India, especially those without much exposure to gay people, are convinced that they can easily identify who is “a gay”. My belief is that these people are completely mistaken and are usually those who confuse effeminacy with homosexuality.
  • There is no reason for you to be uncomfortable/awkward around a gay person. There is no problem with shaking hands with him, or hugging him. Just because someone is gay, doesn’t mean that he wants to have sex with you. As Harish Iyer once memorably told one of my friends, “Daro mat, yeh chhoone se nahiN failta hai!” (Don’t worry, this does not spread through touch.)
  • The word gay is an adjective. Thus, “He is gay” is correct English, while “He is a gay” is wrong. Similarly, you can say “gay people” but not “the gays”.
  • Being gay is not a choice. It is not a psychological problem that can be fixed by counseling/therapy. It is not a “mental illness” that can be treated. When I hear of people (typically, parents of gay children) talking about a “cure” for homosexuality, I think of one of my friends – being gay has caused so much torment in his life that he would give anything to not be gay, just so he can have a normal life. But he can’t. (Yes, he’s been through multiple rounds of the so-called cures and treatments, with multiple doctors, and no, he hasn’t been “cured.”)
  • Being gay in India is not illegal! Technically, according to Section 377 of our IPC, gay sex is illegal, but this is rarely enforced – unless someone with the right connections wants to take advantage of a gay person for some other unrelated reason. Then Section 377 becomes a handy weapon of blackmail/manipulation. (Update: On 6/9/2018, the Supreme Court of India struck down Section 377 effectively decriminalizing gay sex, and other forms of unnatural sex between consenting adults. So that’s one problem solved.)
  • Being gay is just one of the possible ways in which a person’s gender/sexuality can differ from the mainstream. Physical body, mental gender, and sexual orientation are independent things. Mental gender is whether you think of yourself as a male or female, irrespective of what physical body you have. Sexual orientation is which sex(es) you find attractive, irrespective of your physical body and your mental gender.
  • There are many variations of what a person can be: bisexual, transsexual (or transgender), intersex, hijra, and more… but a discussion of that is way beyond the scope of this article.
  • The term LGBT is sometimes used in this context, and stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender. Sometimes, Intersex is added to this, so you get LGBTI. In India, sometimes, Hijra is added to this, to give LGBTIH.