Study: Employees Become Lazier When Working with AI

The ‘"social loafing" phenomenon found to occur when people work alongside robots, not just with human teammates.

AI tends to divide the crowd, with many sitting in one of two camps. Some have expressed concerns about this type of technology automating tasks and eventually taking over their jobs. Others have embraced the technology and are using it as a sort of virtual assistant to take on elements of their job to maximize their own efficiency. Or so they say.

A new study the journal Frontiers in Robotics and AI found that people carrying out tasks with robots will exert less effort when they think the robot will pick up the slack, a psychological theory known as “social loafing.”

Social loafing is the social phenomenon that individuals don’t pull their weight when working as part of a team or with well-respected colleagues, relying on others to cover for them. It can sometimes explain why groups are often less productive than individuals working on a task alone.


How Was the Study Conducted?

The study by researchers at the Technical University of Berlin was designed to test whether this unconscious behavior was also true with robots, and to what extent.

According to the research article, the method the scientist used was to give participants the task of spotting defects on circuit boards. One group of participants worked on the task alone, while the other group worked with a robot team partner, receiving boards that had already been inspected by the robot.

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The robot was quite reliable and marked defects on the boards before handing them over to the human. However, it missed 5 defects.

The dependent behavioral measures of interest were effort, operationalized as inspection time and area inspected on the board, and defect detection performance. In addition, subjects rated their subjective effort, performance, and perceived responsibility for the task.

Key Takeaways

The results show that when people think their efforts will be less valuable than that of a colleague, be it human or robot, they tend to take a more laissez-faire approach to the work.

Those participants who had help from the robot had higher error rates than those working alone. Scientists described a “looking but not seeing” effect where the participants working with robots became accustomed to the robot picking up the errors and began engaging less in the task as they deemed the robot to be reliable.

“Teamwork is a mixed blessing. Working together can motivate people to perform well but it can also lead to a loss of motivation because the individual contribution is not as visible.” – Dietlind Helene Cymek, first author of the study

While the study did have some limitations, the authors warned that if the findings were to play out in real-life workplaces it could have a negative impact on quality control at best and serious safety repercussions at worst. Food for thought for industries such as manufacturing and construction which require stringent quality and safety checks.


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Written by:
Abby Ward is a contributor at and freelance search engine marketing (SEM) specialist. Since graduating from Kingston University London in 2015 with Bachelor's degree in Journalism with French, she has worked in many areas of digital marketing including website management, SEO, and paid media. Her specialist topics span her professional and personal interests in search social media, ad-tech, education, food & beverage, hospitality, and business.
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