Academic journal article Journal of Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia

Emotional Responses to Computers: Experiences in Unfairness, Anger, and Spite (1)

Academic journal article Journal of Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia

Emotional Responses to Computers: Experiences in Unfairness, Anger, and Spite (1)

Article excerpt

         Although some educational technology theorists and researchers
         view technology as a set of neutral tools, recent theoretical
         and empirical work has begun to examine technology as a social
         actor in relationships with humans. Drawing on recent research
         on people's psychological responses to interactive media, this
         study looked at people's emotional responses to computers when
         they felt that the computer had cheated them. Specifically we
         looked at whether people would act spitefully towards a
         computer (by attempting to punish it) when treated unfairly in
         an ultimatum bargaining game. Our findings suggest humans do
         treat machines as social actors, enter into psychological
         contracts with them, and act spitefully after feeling betrayed.
         We end with a discussion on implications for the design of
         educational software.


"The computer can only help with cognitive activities and should be considered a tool, nothing more."

-Gantt, V.W. & Claiborne, D.L. (1985)


Do computers have feelings? Is it fair to punish a computer if it makes a mistake? Can computers cheat? These questions seem more appropriate to a science fiction magazine rather than a scholarly educational technology journal. However, over the past decade there has been some fascinating research that indicates that people often respond to computers (and other media) as they would to real people and events--as if the computer was an autonomous agent with feelings and thoughts.

People appear to follow all kinds of social rules when interacting with computers, however bizarre it may seem. Research into these phenomena was first conducted by the Social Responses to Computing Technologies group at Stanford University, lead by Clifford Nass and Byron Reeves. Over the past year, others, including our groups at the University of Florida and Michigan State University, have extended this research. This research indicates that people are polite to machines (Nass, Moon, & Carney, 1996), read gender and personalities into machines (Nass, Moon, & Green, 1996), are flattered by machines (Fogg & Nass, 1996), and treat machines as teammates (Nass, Fogg, & Moon, 1996). People stereotype computers as being native or non-native speakers and, even stranger, they rate the non-native computer as being less competent than a native computer (Alvarez-Torres & Mishra, submitted, Alvarez-Torres, Mishra, & Zhao, 2001). People read personality characteristics, such as dominant or submissive personalities, into computer tutorials (Moon & Nass, 1996) and there is some evidence that they prefer interacting with the submissive computer, even though it seems that they learn more from the dominant one (Mishra, Zhao, & Tan, 2000).

It is important to note here that we are not arguing that computers have feelings or that they have gender and so on. What we are arguing is that people perceive or react to computers as if they do. Part of the reason why people treat computers as social actors is that today's computers are more sophisticated and capable of performing more complex and diverse tasks than ever before. They manipulate huge databases, control mechanical devices, record, understand and speak in human voices, interact with users based on complex contingencies, and learn from experience. Computers have also begun to fill many social roles that traditionally have been filled only by people. Computers now function as bank tellers (automatic teller machines), receptionists (electronic voice mail systems), teachers/tutors (computer assisted instruction), game players (computerized video games), and market researchers (computerized telephone surveys). There has also been a great change in the way people and computers interact. Cryptic computer outputs and incomprehensible error messages are less common. …

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