Are robot vacuum cleaners robbing us of the meaning of life?

Newswise – Researchers from the University of St. Gallen and Columbia Business School have published a new article in the Journal of Marketing examining how the perceived importance of manual labor can help predict the adoption of autonomous products.

The study, forthcoming in the Journal of Marketing, is entitled “Meaning of Manual Labor Impedes Consumer Adoption of Autonomous Products” and was authored by Emanuel de Bellis, Gita Venkataramani Johar and Nicola Poletti.

Whether it’s cleaning homes or mowing lawns, consumers are increasingly delegating manual tasks to autonomous products. These gadgets work without human supervision, freeing consumers from everyday tasks. However, there is anecdotal evidence that people experience a sense of satisfaction when doing housework. Are autonomous products like robot vacuums and cooking machines depriving consumers of meaningful experiences?

This new study shows that autonomous products remove a source of meaning from life, despite undeniable benefits such as gains in efficiency and comfort. This leads to consumers being reluctant to purchase these products.

The researchers argue that manual labor is an important source of meaning in life. This is consistent with research showing that everyday chores have value — chores like cleaning may not make us happy, but they do add meaning to our lives. De Bellis explains, “Our studies show that the ‘importance of handcrafting’ leads consumers to reject autonomous products.” For example, these consumers have more negative attitudes towards autonomous products and are also more likely to associate the disadvantages of autonomous products in comparison to believe in their merits.”

Highlight the time saved for other meaningful tasks

On the one hand, autonomous products take over tasks from consumers, which typically leads to a reduction in manual work and thus the ability to derive meaning from manual tasks. On the other hand, by taking over manual tasks, autonomous products offer consumers the opportunity to spend time on other, potentially more meaningful tasks and activities. “We propose that companies emphasize so-called alternative sources of meaning in life, which should reduce consumers’ need to derive meaning specifically from manual tasks. Emphasizing other sources of meaning, such as family or hobbies, at the time of the adoption decision should counteract the negative effect on autonomous product acceptance,” says Johar.

In fact, a key value proposition of many of these technologies is that they save time. iRobot claims that owners of its Roomba robot vacuum cleaner save up to 110 hours of cleaning effort per year. Some companies even go a step further and make suggestions as to what consumers could do with their freed-up time. For example, German home appliance maker Vorwerk advertises its Thermomix cooking machine as “more family time” and “Thermomix gets the job done so you can have time for what matters most.” Rather than the quality of task completion (e.g., cooking a delicious meal ), the company emphasizes that consumers can spend their time doing other, arguably more meaningful, activities.

This study shows that the perceived importance of manual labor (MML) – a novel concept introduced by the researchers – is key to predicting the adoption of autonomous products. Poletti says, “Consumers with a high MML tend to resist delegating manual tasks to autonomous products, whether or not those tasks are central to one’s identity.” Marketers can start by turning consumers into consumers segment high and low MML.” Unlike other personality variables that can only be reliably measured using complex psychometric scales, the extent of consumers’ MML can be assessed simply by observing their behavioral characteristics, such as whether consumers tend to wash the dishes to do by hand, or whether they prefer a manual car transmission, or what activities and hobbies they pursue. Activities such as woodworking, cooking, painting, and fishing are likely predictors of high MML. Likewise, companies can measure likes on social media for specific activities and hobbies that require manual labor. Finally, practitioners can ask consumers to rate the extent to which manual or cognitive tasks are meaningful to them. By segmenting consumers by their MML, marketers can better align and focus their messaging and efforts.

In promotions, companies can highlight the meaningful time consumers gain through the use of autonomous products (e.g., “This product allows you to spend time on more meaningful tasks and pursuits than cleaning”). Such intervention can prevent the harmful effects of manual work on autonomous product acceptance.