Why are we scared of algorithms?

New technologies such as algorithms and artificial intelligence present both opportunities and challenges for mankind

27 February 2019


By Jack McGuire, Science, Social Cognition Research Experimental Lab Manager and Research Assistant, Cambridge Judge Business School

New technologies such as algorithms and artificial intelligence present both opportunities and challenges for mankind. In business, organisations that don’t use these technologies run the risk of not staying competitive. In fact, we now live in an age where a company's proprietary technology is more indicative of future success than their human resources. However, even though algorithms and artificial intelligence can offer very clear advantages, why is it that people are often reluctant to accept the increasing role they play in our lives?

At first glance, it seems as if we have good reason to welcome these new technologies. It has been shown that algorithms can outperform humans for many life altering decisions - such as medical diagnoses and predicting natural disasters. Nevertheless, it seems that professionals and the general public alike just don’t like to use algorithms. The result? A huge gap between what value algorithms can generate and the extent to which people feel comfortable interacting with them.

So why don’t we feel more comfortable accepting algorithms? If they can do a better job than we can in areas of life we really care about, shouldn’t we be wholeheartedly embracing them?

Research conducted in the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania suggests that people don’t like algorithms because of a desire to retain control. They feel that using algorithms means giving up control. The research showed that people were more willing to accept algorithms if they were able to make changes to their decisions afterwards. Interestingly, people were also as likely to accept and use an algorithm if they had very little control over changing the decision than if they were given a lot of control, suggesting that what matters most is that people have some control. We don’t necessarily want to override algorithms completely, we just want to feel like that we are in charge of our own destiny.

The future will undoubtedly be full of algorithms. However, if people won’t want to relinquish control to something they don’t fully understand, the answer might lie in giving (some) control back to users of algorithms, in order to preserve the value created by technological advances , and at the same time, protect the fundamental human needs that keep people engaged.

Dietvorst, B. J., Simmons, J. P., & Massey, C. (2016). Overcoming algorithm aversion: People will use imperfect algorithms if they can (even slightly) modify them. Management Science.