The Psychology of Computer Rage

If you’ve ever used a computer to accomplish a task within the last 20 years, you’ve probably had a melt-down moment— viruses, blue screens, ads that won’t close, and the oh-so feared act of downloading a word document, only to save and close it into nothingness (a plague upon the early 2000’s). I once lost a very long and complicated paper the night before it was due my first year of college. After realizing I could never recover the paper, I gripped the sides of my monitor and yelled, “Why are you doing this to me?!” before my boyfriend had to pull me away before I did something drastic to my computer. And he was right to be concerned; almost 40% of Americans who reported using a computer within the last 6 months reported experiencing computer rage, or the verbal or physical abuse of their computers or computer-related accessories (1). This means that almost every person who reads this article has, or most likely knows, someone who experiences computer rage. In my own life, I can think not only of my own accounts of computer rage, but also that of other individuals I know. Such examples include my cousin who once punched his computer monitor when his computer acted up during a video game, or my old coworker whom I could often hear bashing her keyboard through the office wall every time excel would freeze. There is also the classic printer-rage scene from the movie Office Space.

However, computer rage can be even more aggressive than slamming keyboards and punching screens. More diabolical reports of computer assault can be found through the posting of results from one particular survey that asked participants to explain how their computer rage manifested itself (found here). Individuals who took the survey reported doing everything from torching their accessories, to hitting their computers with their cars, to shooting their faulty computers. One person even reported that they mounted dead computer parts on the wall of their old dorm room, like some sort of nerdy Games-of-Thrones warning to future computers.

Collectively, all of this begs an important question. Why do computer failures just seem to drive us into a frustration and anger so severe, that we take pleasure in mounting dead computer parts on our walls? While it seems obvious that the answer is the lack of performance of the computer, what psychologists actually believe is driving these high accounts of rage is how we relate to our computers.

The Media Equation is a theory that states that we humans tend to view computers similarly as to how we view other people (2). In fact, we treat them so much like other humans that we actually apply the same social norms onto them. For example, if we ask our computer to do something for us (i.e. perform a command), and they do, we are happy and grateful for their assistance. An example of this social norm would be like asking someone to save your spot in a line at the store, and when you come back, they smile and let you back into your spot.

But when computers fail to do things we ask them to, specifically when we are in an important time crunch or have a lot at stake, failure to perform a command is seen as a violation of social norms and results in anger and indignation. Imagine trying to return to your spot in line at the store when you’re already 30 minutes late for lunch with your partner, your dog is in the car, and the person who was supposed to save your place claims that they don’t know who you are, and you have to go all the way to the back of the line and wait just like everyone else. To make things worse, when we cannot understand why these social norms are broken (Why was that person at the store such a deliberate jerk?), it can feel even more extreme than a simple breach of social norms— it can feel like betrayal. In your mind, your computer shifts from your best ally and partner-in-crime, to the thing that prevents you from accomplishing a task or goal when time is tight and everything is on the line. And as we know from any Hollywood drama, when people feel betrayed, they oh-so-easily go on an "I've got nothing to lose" rage.

With computers naturally ingrained to feel like a robo-human-social-norm-abiding entities, it is only inevitable that at some point, we feel betrayed by their inability to always do what we want, and then go into full rage mode. After all, technology is not perfect even though we may expect it to be by now. So, when we face those moments, how can we reduce our computer rage? Many suggestions have been made ranging from taking out your anger on old equipment with safety goggles (3) to imagining petting a cat or dog (4). But there are a few suggestions that might just be a bit more applicable.

One solution is to simply close your eyes and take a deep breath while your computer tries to work itself out. Taking deep breaths has been found to help lower blood pressure, something that can help slow down stress responses (5). Another way to relieve computer rage is to view the computer issue as a challenge or a puzzle that needs to be figured out, rather than a black electrical cloud hanging over you (6). Changing your perspective lens may help you view your computer’s issues less as an act of betrayal and more as a signal for help, and calm your reaction. Building up knowledge about how computers work, backing up data often, and even consciously acknowledging that the computer is not conspiring against you couldn’t hurt either.

Such precautions in the face of computer frustration may help computer users to curb their desire to lash out on their computers, but can we better design computers and interfaces to help prevent this inevitable rage? One particular study looked at just that. Participants in the study were either assigned to a computer interface that provided empathy and validated the users’ frustrations when experiencing setbacks, or an interface that did nothing when users were frustrated. What researchers found is that when an interface actively listens and provides users with a sense of understanding of their emotional state, it helped the user manage their emotions and showed signs of decreased frustration (7). Similarly, another study looked at if framing error messages in a positive light might reduce computer anger (8). In their study, participants either received an error message that read “‘The functions of the computer were suspended. Great that the computer will soon work again.” (positive condition), “The execution of the program was interrupted. This is frustrating.” (negative condition), or a neutral error message. The researchers found that by simply changing the tone of the error message to be more positive increased user happiness.

While the future may hold computers that respond more compassionately and empathetically than most other humans, for now we must manage our emotions when technology gets the best of us. That night years ago when I lost my paper, I never realized how odd it was that I yelled “Why are you doing this to me?!” as opposed to “Why is it doing this to me?!” The application of social norms to the technology we use is not an obvious action, but critical to understanding why we rage against our machines.

Note: This article was inspired by the Wikipedia article “Computer rage” I wrote for the American Psychological Association’s Wikipedia Initiative.  

References

  1. Survey: Over A Third of Americans Confess to Verbal or Physical Abuse of Their Computers. (2013, July 30). Retrieved December 27, 2015, from http://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20130730005132/en/Survey-Americans-Confess-Verbal-Physical-Abuse-Computers
  2. Reeves, B., & Nass, C. I. (1996). The media equation: How people treat computers, television, and new media like real people and places. Stanford, Calif: CSLI Publications.
  3. Norman, K.L. (2005). "Computer Rage: A Student Response to Frustration with Technology"(PDF). RetrievedNovember 2, 2015.
  4. It's Not OK Computer! Computer-Related Stress In The Workplace | Fresh Business Thinking. (2010, March 29). Retrieved December 27, 2015, from http://www.freshbusinessthinking.com/no-its-not-ok-computer-computer-related-stress-in-the-workplace/#.Vjg-OberSUl
  5. Just Breathe: Body Has A Built-In Stress Reliever. (2010, December 10). Retrieved December 27, 2015, from http://www.npr.org/2010/12/06/131734718/just-breathe-body-has-a-built-in-stress-reliever
  6. Lazar, J., Jones, A., Hackley, M., & Shneiderman, B. (2004). Severity and impact of computer user frustration: A comparison of student and workplace users. Interacting with Computersdoi:1016/j.intcom.2005.06.001. Retrieved November 10, 2015.
  7. Klein, J., Moon, Y., & Picard, R. W. (January 01, 2002). This computer responds to user frustration::Theory, design, and results. Interacting with Computers, 14, 2, 119-140.
  8. Partala, T., & Surakka, V. (2004). The effects of affective interventions in human–computer interaction. Interacting with Computers, 16, 2.