Giving my computers a break

Ten years ago next month, Clifford Nass and Byron Reeves published The Media Equation: How People Treat Computers, Television, and New Media Like Real People and Places. The Stanford profs had conducted a series of standard psychology experiments but substituted a computer for one of the participants. From the Amazon review:

“Fresh evidence of human gullibility never fails to entertain. Stanford professors Reeves and Nass provide plenty of cocktail-party ammunition with findings from 35 laboratory experiments demonstrating how even technologically sophisticated people treat boxes of circuitry as if they were other human beings. People are polite to computers, respond to praise from them and view them as teammates. They like computers with personalities similar to their own, find masculine-sounding computers extroverted, driven and intelligent while they judge feminine-sounding computers knowledgeable about love and relationships. Viewers rate content on a TV embellished with the label ‘specialist’ superior to identical content on a TV labeled ‘generalist’ (they even found the picture clearer on the ‘specialist’ box).”

It proved tough to put the theory into practice. Microsoft Bob was based on Nass and Reeves’ research. But the results weren’t all bad: Bill Gates married Microsoft Bob’s marketing manager, Melinda. Wikipedia reports that…

Bob received the 7th place in PC World magazine’s list of the 25 worst tech products of all time, a spot in Time magazine’s list of the 50 Worst Inventions, and number one worst product of the decade by

The notion of treating computers as if they are people popped into my head this morning when my wife stuck her head in my office to ask what was wrong. “Nothing,” I said. “Just swearing at the computer.” My research on well-being at work has sensitized me to the impact of negative emotions. At team whose members don’t express at least three positive emotions for every negative emotion will fall apart.

Could my outbursts against the computer be stressing me out? Nobel prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman has demonstrated that the slightest emotional transaction can color one’s mood for hours. And I was swearing at my computer whenever I hit a glitch, which translates into one rant every fifteen or twenty minutes throughout the day.

Would it make me happier if I stopped griping about the machine? I decided to find out.

As of right now, I have ceased swearing at my Macs. In fact, I’ll praise them when they do a great job. After all, the iMac I’m writing this on is 25,000 times faster than the first computer I ever operated — an IBM 7094 Mod II — and cost 25,000 times less. And it connects me to the world. Not bad.

Unlearning habits formed over the course of decades will take strong reminders. I’m giving that reminding task to Mr. Bill and Ratbert. They’re right on my machine, ready to remind me that the problem is just a software issue (Mr. Bill takes those hits) or human error (Catbert’s department.) They will council me to calm down. Time fixes all glitches.

Redefining the Media Equation

Think I’ll be able to hang in for at least a week? And do you think it might improve my mood?

Redefining the Media Equation