QuestionWhy do we take our anger out on machines?
Hopes&Fears answers questions with the help of experts. We talked to a psychotherapist, mechanical engineer, anger management specialist and pop culture professor about beating up machines.
You have to print 100 pages for an important meeting in 5 minutes and the printer just jammed. Your computer just froze and you didn't save your Photoshop creation within the last hour. We’ve all been there and we’ve all had a similar reaction; to release a string of expletives and then to probably start hitting the source of your frustration. You shake your laptop, bang your printer, hit an old television set. We’ve all done it, but why? Do we simply want to take our anger out on defenseless things?
Or do we think that these actions will actually fix them? This primitive method of repair even has a name: percussive maintenance. We asked experts why we take our anger out on machines and whether you can actually fix your computer/printer/television/car/radio with a good old slap.
Dr. Anita Gadhia-Smith
People take their anger out on machines because they are "safe." A machine is not going to hit you back or cause you harm. Although you may cause yourself physical harm by taking out your anger on a machine, the machine will let you do it. Issues with impulse control may also come into play. When people let their anger accumulate internally, a small frustration can sometimes trigger an avalanche. A machine is also something over which we have little control. When people seek to control the uncontrollable, anger can manifest, sometimes due to past unresolved control issues. The good thing about taking your anger out on a machine is that it can often be replaced. It may be cathartic and expensive, but some people are willing to pay the price.
The most reliable laptops on the market
Apple makes the most reliable laptops, with only 8 percent needing repairs in the first three years of ownership. The leading Window-based laptops were Gateway and Toshiba. 12 percent of each of those brands needed repairs. Asus needed the most repairs, with a 16 percent repair rate. Samsung, HP, Lenovo, Dell, Sony, and Acer fell somewhere in between.
On a related note, an average of 50,000 people visits the Apple Genius Bar every day.
Daniel D. Frey
Professor of Mechanical Engineering,
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
It certainly is true in my experience that some machines that are not functioning will resume functioning when rapped, banged, or jostled. If a machine is functioning and then a part moves out of proper position or a foreign object moves into a location to interfere with moving parts like gears, then it makes sense that an acceleration or vibration might move something into a better position. This might even be true for electronic systems such as old CRT-based televisions which often responded to such ‘percussive maintenance.’ But we also know from experience that these measures usually only restore function temporarily leading to frustrating re-application of the banging and knocking only to get temporary relief from the underlying problem. Better, in the long run, to get to the root cause of the difficulty and make a more permanent repair.
Dr. Ronald Potter-Efron
Ph.D. anger-management specialist, co-author of Letting Go of Anger
Anger has a tendency to roll downhill toward safe targets. So if I'm mad at my boss, a very unsafe target, I may take it out on my spouse or kids. But since they are likely to strike back it's even safer to hit my poor helpless vehicle. People expect machines to be perfect servants. When they do fail us (say printing 1,000 copies of your paper when you only wanted 10) we immediately want to punish them for their impertinence.
Professor of Popular Culture, Syracuse University
Rage against the machine
We usually hit machines because we’re mad at them. Unlike a child or a friend or a spouse, machines exist for the sole purpose of doing what we tell them to do, and we are infuriated when they fail to do it. In most cases, that failure frustrates the fulfillment of a desire that we have been confidently anticipating. Hot and thirsty, you put your money in the vending machine, happy in the knowledge that in a matter of seconds you will have a cold refreshing beverage. When it doesn’t come, you are left with neither the satisfaction you expected nor the money you paid for that satisfaction.
There is no rational alternative
We also hit machines because there is no rational alternative. One can’t argue or reason with a machine. One can’t cajole and convince it to do what it is refusing to do. Feeling powerless and left with no immediate opportunity for grievance or appeal, sometimes the only thing left to do is to give it a good whack. In the case of a vending machine, this might provide some temporary satisfaction. Attacking your own equipment, however, may be cathartic but usually leads to negative outcomes.
Hope springs eternal
On rare occasions, taking anger out on a machine can actually be effective. A few hard knocks on a vending machine display window might be just enough to release that Snickers from the twisting metal coil that holds it dangling. This seldom works, but if you’ve ever had the experience---even just once---of hitting a machine successfully, then you’ll probably try it again and again for the rest of your life. In the good old days of analog technology, sometimes a blow to the system was a useful strategy, helping to restore, perhaps, a bad electrical connection. (This was the case when Fonzie pounded the jukebox and when that Skylab space station astronaut got the power supply up and running by hitting it with a hammer.) Today’s digital technology responds less well to anger and violence. I know of no cases in which hitting a poorly functioning laptop with a hammer ever ended well.
Overall effectiveness of taking your anger out on machines:
Chances of positive results are high if your goal is to break the machine. Those chances are considerably lower if your goal is to get the machine to perform to your expectations. As is the case with dealing with humans, anger may be temporarily satisfying, but it usually doesn’t get you what you want.
Iconic moments of percussive maintenance
1. The Office Space printer destruction scene.
2. The Fonz, cueing up music on the jukebox with just a flick of the fist on Happy Days.
3. A frustrated Marty gets the Delorean started again by banging his head on the steering wheel in Back To The Future.
4. Han Solo hitting the Millennium Falcon to get it started in The Empire Strikes Back.
5. Several different incarnations of The Doctor have used percussive maintenance on Doctor Who, often to fix the TARDIS.
6. Pretty much everything in this montage by Duncan Robson, which is simply titled, Percussive Maintenance.
Illustration: Sergii Rodionov