digitalwellbeing.orgHow to thrive in our hyper-connected world

The Magical Psychology of the ‘Uber for X’ Economy

Mashable calls ‘Magic‘ the logical extreme of the ‘Uber for X’ economy.  Magic is an on-demand mobile service where you simply text whatever you want – yes whatever you want – to Magic’s number, and they’ll get you it for a pre-agreed fee, paid on mobile via Stripe.  Started last week, Magic has received 18,000 requests in the first 72 hours.

Has the Uber-for-X economy jumped the shark?  Not if you believe the Economist, weighing in with the suggestion that an on-demand mobile workforce is the future (and the French business paper Les Echos joined in yesterday).  Bad news for people who value stability more than flexibility, but good news for the agile.  And from a business perspective, Magic is a brilliant blueprint for other budding Uber-for-X startups because it’s stripped right down to the bares essentials of what an on-demand mobile service needs to be.  No fancy tech – just text.

But it’s from a psychological perspective that Magic, Handy, Uber and the burgeoning category of on-demand mobile services are particularly interesting.  Of course, from a rational choice perspective, these services make sense because they cost us less – not in money, but in time and effort.  They offer convenience value, and their front-end apps are examples of ‘convenience tech’.  Beyond this though, there is some interesting magical psychology behind Magic – and other Uber-for-X businesses.

In a meta-analysis of magical beliefs – from alien abductions to cults, to supernatural happenings and pseudoscience – Michael Shermer has identified the three common components that made us susceptible to these ‘magical’ ideas.

  • Instant Gratification – magical ideas offer immediate rewards. For example, when you join a cult, the first thing that happens is that you get ‘love-bombed’ – other cult members will fawn over you, giving you a ego-boosting ‘I matter’ feeling.
    • Uber-for-X businesses and convenience tech do precisely the same, they offer instant gratification – playing to our impatience, and our desire for immediate satisfaction
  • Simplification – magical ideas simplifypeoples lives and beliefs.  For example, cults often have simple ‘black-and-white’ beliefs, and simple instructions for how to live the good life.  They simplify a complicated world for us
    • By saving us effort, convenience tech and Uber-for-X businesses play to our drive and desire to simplify our lives and strip out the hassle-factor
  • Credo-Consolans (I believe because it is comforting) – magical ideas give us comforting hope and purpose in the face of mortality and futility. Cults and supernatural beliefsprovide an ego-boosting dose of immortality and higher-purpose, whilst shielding us from the realisation that we are ultimately all just worm-food
    • Uber-for-X businesses and convenience tech create the comforting illusion that the world revolves around you – a self-aggrandising trick that the world is on-demand for you, and yes, it really is ‘all about me’.  As Uber’s tagline goes – ‘everyone’s private driver’.

So whilst the Uber economy has economic and rational appeal, it also has psychological and emotional appeal, playing to our predisposition for ‘magical’ ideas that offer instant gratification, simplicity and comfort.






Written by
Dr Paul Marsden
Join the discussion

Digital wellbeing covers the latest scientific research on the impact of digital technology on human wellbeing. Curated by psychologist Dr. Paul Marsden (@marsattacks). Sponsored by WPP agency SYZYGY.