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Fear of robots causes perceived job insecurity, study says

Researchers say that while human workers believe their robot co-workers will one day supplant them, these fears cast an unnecessary shadow over their positive qualities.

(CN) — Workers' wariness about robots in their workplaces is a persistent fear mixed with tentative hope, according to a study published Tuesday in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

According to the study, some economists are optimistic about the potential of robots to create new jobs for humans. Conversely, the study also says that scholars worry the rise of robots poses an existential risk, and that middle-class workers will lose the jobs economists hope the robots will create.

To understand these conflicted emotions, a team of researchers led by Kai Chi Yam, an associate professor of management at the National University of Singapore, conducted experiments and analyzed data from workers in countries such as India, Singapore, and the U.S.

Throughout these experiments, the researchers say that they found evidence of burnout and job insecurity that led to workplace incivility.

In the Western Indian headquarters of one of Asia’s largest automobile manufacturing companies, for example, the researchers assigned 118 engineers with daily surveys that contained scaled prompts such as "Today I put down a coworker." After the researchers analyzed the surveys taken before work, in the middle of the day, and at the end of work, the researchers found the adoption of robots in the workplace indirectly increased daily burnout and daily job insecurity rates. Also, the workers reported an increase of "daily instigated incivility," according to the study.

Meanwhile, robot-related job insecurity extended to the parents of students at the National University of Singapore. The researchers randomly assigned 343 parents to three groups that read a different article. One group read an article about industry robots, the second group read a general article about robots, while the third group read an unrelated article. Per the study, the following survey all the groups took found that the group who read the article about robots in business reported significantly higher levels of job insecurity than the other two groups.

As for the U.S., in 185 metropolitan areas with a great number of robots and use of popular job sites such as LinkedIn and Indeed, the study says that the areas with the most prevalent rates of robots had the highest rates of job recruiting site searches. However, the researchers noted that because the unemployment rates weren’t higher in those areas, the people in these areas possibly sought new careers or felt dissatisfied with their current jobs, and did not necessarily feel robot-related job insecurity.

This ties in to the researchers' belief that despite human worries surrounding robots, these same workers underestimate their own abilities. Furthermore, self-affirmation techniques can soothe their fears.

During an online experiment, the researchers asked 400 full-time Prolific employees to write about characteristics or values important to them. The researchers found that self-affirmation exercises that encouraged people to think positively about themselves, including their human characteristics such as a sense of humor or athletics, helped lessen workplace robot fears.

However, the researchers noted three limitations of their studies: the focus on job insecurity, the lack of distinguishing the “humanness” of the robots, and their failure to test if the self-affirmation techniques ensured lower burnout and incivility.

This, the researchers say, prompts the need for future studies to collect data on how these insecurities and incivilities may affect future human-robot work relations.

“Technology may have fundamentally changed the nature of work, but people seem fundamentally unchanged: We still fear that a workplace with robots is a workplace without us,” according to the study.

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