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Terry Stawar

Last Saturday Target stores across the country experienced a major computer system failure that shut down their cash registers for two hours. Television footage of frustrated Target patrons abandoning their shopping carts was seen on all the news outlooks. Target representative Jenna Reck said the outage was related to an error made during routine maintenance. On Sunday, however, Target experienced a second system failure when their ability to process credit card payments was compromised. For an hour and a half they were only able to except gift cards and cash payments.

Like many retailers Target uses NCR to process credit card payments. On Sunday NCR experienced a major glitch at one of their data centers. Target claimed that the second failure was solely a NCR issue. It was also claimed that neither incident involved a security breach like the one that occurred in 2013 that exposed confidential payment information for 110 million customers. Target formally apologized for disrupting Father’s Day shopping and the frustration these outages caused.

You would think that such system failures would be rare these days, but it’s not very hard to find them. My wife Diane and I were just on vacation in Texas and the computer system was not working at the hotel where we stayed. To the consternation of our grandchildren the WiFi system was also down for several days. The hotel was unable to make more than one key for the room and the stressed-out desk clerk had a difficult time finding our reservation. She eventually discovered it on a spreadsheet clamped to a clipboard.

When we checked out and went to the local airport, their computer system was also down. A few years ago a number of airlines had to cancel all their flights when a vital piece of reservation software called Sabre failed. This time, however, another clipboard was produced and the airline checked us through.

There was also a silver lining. Since the system was down they were unable to charge for checked baggage. They weighed the luggage of the people in front of us and one bag was a little overweight. The airline clerk just shook her head and said, “Well I guess it doesn’t matter, since we can’t charge you anyway.” Usually when a computer system goes down, it’s frustrating and inconvenient for customers. This time, however, all the passengers seemed quite gratified.

Most people have experienced computer failures either at work or on their home computers. Irina Ceaparul and her colleagues from the University of Maryland found that the most annoying computer experiences involved browsing, email, and word processing. The most frequent sources of frustration were error messages, dropped connections, wait times, and difficult-to-find features. Poorly-designed mechanisms that people use to communicate with the computer’s operating system were often the primary cause of confusion and frustration.

Traditionally psychologists have viewed frustration as emanating from an interruption of the goal-attainment process. This is when the individual is prevented from achieving some satisfying outcome.

A survey conducted by Kelton Research found that the average American spends around 12 hours each month trying to fix computer problems. Perfectionists are especially vulnerable to computer failure frustration. Social media is filled with examples of people acting out their frustration by slamming keyboards, punching screens, and even running over their computers with their cars. In April 2015, a Colorado man took his computer into a back alley and shot it eight times with a 9 mm pistol. He was cited by police for firing a weapon in a residential area. This kind of anger has become known as “computer rage”. In one study computer rage was only a little less common than road rage.

Psychologists believe that how we relate to our computers is the key to understanding the anger that people experience when their computer malfunctions. The “Media Equation” is a general communications theory that asserts that humans actually view computers similarly to how they view people. Of course, computer designers have consciously promoted this perspective through the use of virtual assistants such as Siri and Alexa. Now when computers fail to function in the way we expect, we experience a sense of betrayal resulting in anger and indignation. One survey found that most computer users experienced computer rage three to four times a month.

Many authorities recommend using relaxation exercises and stress management techniques to counter computer rage. Others have suggested viewing the computer failure as problem to be solved, rather than seeing the system as a malevolent entity deserving of punishment. Some computer technicians are now being trained on how to work with customers in a psychologically sensitive manner. Also designers have been working on computers that appear emotionally supportive and optimistic to mitigate computer rage. For example, one study found that when error messages contained positive wording such as "Great news your computer will soon work again” people were significantly less upset. At my workplace when the previous computer system froze up, it only gave the error message, “Something bad just happened.”

Last week in Texas I received my first speeding ticket ever. Today I called the judge’s office and wouldn’t you know it, their computer system was down.

— Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D. lives in Jeffersonville and is the CEO of LifeSpring Health Systems. He can occasionally be reached by e-mail at tstawar@gmail.com.