It looks like a scene straight out of a sci-fi movie—you go to work, and report to your robot boss. Based on your work last month, it tells you, in beeps and boops, your performance is subpar. You go for lunch and order a coffee. This time, another robot gets it for you, brewed to the perfect milk-to-coffee ratio you like.

Though it may seem crazy, robots are increasingly part of everyday life. Robots help serve food, man hotels, and even make hiring decisions in the workplace. But how humans feel about them remains complicated.

Robot Bosses

Take robot bosses, for instance, that have the power to evaluate your job performance. In a recent study, I tested how people reacted to receiving negative feedback from a robot supervisor. Participants completed a task and then had their performance criticized by either an anthropomorphized robot (which had more humanlike characteristics like a human name and voice and an animated face), a mechanistic robot, or a human supervisor.

What I found was that people did not like the anthropomorphized robot or human supervisor very much, and given the option to power down the robot supervisor in retaliation, most participants did. Interestingly, participants reacted much less negatively toward the mechanistic robots, because participants felt that the robot did not intend to hurt them through the delivery of negative feedback.

But you may think, "Wait, a robot can't actually intend to do anything. It doesn't have a mind." This is an example of how we do (or don't) attribute a mind to another entity. Whether or not you perceive a robot as having a mind on its own depends on your judgments of its agency (can it think and act as it wishes?) and subjective experience (can it feel emotions?).

In my study, anthropomorphized robots were more likely to be seen as possessing agency—and behaving intentionally—than non-anthropomorphized robots. In other words, having a humanlike name and face made a robot supervisor seem more deliberate in its abuse, which in turn evoked bitter, retaliatory behaviors from the person under its supervision.

What About Robot Co-Workers?

Does working with them—as opposed to for them—help? The short answer is no. In another study, I found that mere exposure to the idea of robots in workplaces made people feel insecure about their jobs.

In one study, participants working at an automobile manufacturing company reported that the more they interacted with robots on a daily basis, the more insecure they felt about keeping their job. Job insecurity also led to burnout and poor, uncivil workplace behaviors. Another study in the United States reveals that areas with the highest rates of robots also had the highest rates of people searching job recruiting sites (a proxy of how insecure people might feel about their jobs), even though unemployment rates weren't higher in those areas. We replicate these findings across industries and countries. Interestingly, we also find that robots elicit the greater fear among laypeople, above and beyond known job threats such as immigrants, younger employees, and even intelligent algorithms. 

Seemingly, we do not like robot co-workers much either. Despite the popular, spectacular claims that robots will improve our lives, the reality of our relationship with robots looks bleak. If we perceive some robot bosses as potential abusers and robot co-workers as job-stealers, then where can we co-exist with robots at all?

Robots that Serve Us?

Turns out, there is a type of robot that humans like more: robot servers. Think of robots that bring your food order, and robots that take your luggage to your hotel room. Known as service robots, these robots are designed specifically to help humans.

In an earlier study conducted at Henn na Hotel in Japan, the first robot-staffed hotel in the world, I surveyed hotel guests on how satisfied they were with their stay. Here, I found that guests were not only generally satisfied, but more so when they anthropomorphized the robots that serve them (by thinking about or treating them as if they were human). 

This time around, seeing a robot as more humanlike made people think it has feelings and the capacity to experience them. And it made them like the robots more while also more forgiving of any errors they made.

So, 'Do humans like robots?' The answer is it depends not so much on the types of robots, but what contexts are we interacting with the robots in. In contexts where robots can criticize us or potentially replace us, we see them as threats. In contexts where robots can serve us, we see them as "friends." Ultimately, whether we cower at robots or welcome them with open arms seems to largely depend on what we believe they can do to us or for us.

For Further Reading

Yam, K. C., Goh, E. Y., Fehr, R., Lee, R., Soh, H., & Gray, K. (2022). When your boss is a robot: Workers are more spiteful to robot supervisors that seem more human. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology102, 104360.

Yam, K. C., Tang, P. M., Jackson, J. C., & Gray, K. (2023). The rise of robots increases job insecurity and maladaptive workplace behaviors: Multimethod evidence. Journal of Applied Psychology.

Yam, K. C., Bigman, Y. E., Tang, P. M., Ilies, R., De Cremer, D., Soh, H., & Gray, K. (2021). Robots at work: People prefer—and forgive—service robots with perceived feelings. Journal of Applied Psychology106(10), 557.

Kai Chi (Sam) Yam is an Associate Professor of Management at the National University of Singapore Business School. His research focuses on behavioral ethics, leadership, humor, and the future of work.