After Hours

10 habits of superstitious users

For some users, the computer is unfathomable - leading them to make bizarre assumptions about technology and the effect of their own actions. Here are a few irrational beliefs such users develop.

For some users, the computer is unfathomable - leading them to make bizarre assumptions about technology and the effect of their own actions. Here are a few irrational beliefs such users develop.

Superstition: A belief, not based on human reason or scientific knowledge, that future events may be influenced by one's behavior in some magical or mystical way (Wiktionary).

In 1947, the psychologist B. F. Skinner reported a series of experiments in which pigeons could push a lever that would randomly either give them a food pellet, or nothing. Think of it as a sort of one-armed bandit that the pigeons played for free. Skinner found, after a while, that some of the pigeons started acting oddly before pushing the lever. One moved in counterclockwise circles, one repeatedly stuck its head into the upper corner of the cage, and two others would swing their heads back and forth in a sort of pendulum motion. He suggested that the birds had developed "superstitious behaviors" by associating getting the food with something they happened to be doing when they actually got it -- and they had wrongly concluded that if they did it again, they were more likely to get the pellet. Essentially, they were doing a sort of food-pellet dance to better their odds.

Although computer users are undoubtedly smarter than pigeons, users who really don't understand how a computer works may also wrongly connect some action of theirs with success (and repeat it), or associate it with failure (and avoid it like the plague). Here are some of the user superstitions I've encountered.

Note: This article is also available as a PDF download.

1: Refusing to reboot

Some users seem to regard a computer that's up and running and doing what they want as a sort of miracle, achieved against all odds, and unlikely ever to be repeated ... certainly not by them. Reboot? Not on your life! If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Why take the risk?

2: Excessive fear of upgrades

Exercising caution when it comes to upgrades is a good idea. But some users go well beyond that, into the realm of the irrational. It may take only one or two bad experiences. In particular, if an upgrade causes problems that don't seem to be related to the upgrade itself, this can lead to a superstitious fear of change because it confirms their belief that they have no idea how the computer really works -- and therefore no chance of correctly judging whether an upgrade is worth it or just asking for trouble. Better to stay away from any change at all, right?

3: Kneejerk repetition of commands

These are the people who, when their print command fails to produce output in a timely manner, start pounding the keys. They treat the computer like a recalcitrant child who just isn't paying attention or doesn't believe they really mean it. Users may get the impression that this superstition is justified because the computer sometimes does seem to be ignoring them -- when it fails to execute a double-click because they twitched the mouse or when they have inadvertently dropped out of input mode. Or it may come from the tendency of knowledgeable helpers to make inconspicuous adjustments and then say, "Try it again."

4: Insisting on using particular hardware when other equally good hardware is available

Whenever you go to the trouble of providing your users with multiple options -- computers, printers, servers, etc. -- they will develop favorite choices. Some users will conclude, however, based on their previous experience (or sometimes just based on rumor), that only this particular piece of hardware will do. The beauty of interchangeability is wasted on them.

5: "I broke it!"

Many users blame the computer for any problems (or they blame the IT department). But some users assume when something goes wrong, they did it.

They don't think about all the tiny voltages and magnetic charges, timed to the nanosecond, all of which have to occur in the proper sequence in order for success. In fact, there are plenty of chances for things to go wrong without them, and things often do. But then, all those possible sources of error are hidden from the user -- invisible by their nature and tucked away inside the box. The only place complexity isn't hidden is in the interface, and the most obviously fallible part of that is ... them. It may take only a few cases of it actually being the user's fault to get this superstition rolling.

6: Magical thinking

These are the users who have memorized the formula for getting the computer to do what they want but have no clue how it works. As in magic, as long as you get the incantation exactly right, the result "just happens." The unforgiving nature of computer commands tends to feed this belief. The user whose long-running struggle to connect to the Web is resolved by, "Oh, here's your problem, you left out the colon..." is a prime candidate to develop this superstition.

Once on the path to magical thinking, some users give up trying to understand the computer as a tool to work with and instead treat it like some powerful but incomprehensible entity that must be negotiated with. For them, the computer works in mysterious ways, and superstitions begin to have more to do with what the computer is than how they use it.

7: Attributing personality to the machine

This is the user who claims in all honesty, "The computer hates me," and will give you a long list of experiences supporting their conclusion, or the one who refuses to use a computer or printer that had a problem earlier but which you have now fixed. No, no, it failed before and the user is not going to forget it.

8: Believing the computer sees all and knows all

Things this user says betray the belief that behind all the hardware and software there is a single Giant Brain that sees all and knows all -- or should. They're surprised when things they've done don't seem to "stick," as in "I changed my email address; why does it keep using my old one?" or "Did you change it everywhere?"  "... Huh?" or "My new car always knows where I am, how come I have to tell Google Maps where I live?" or the ever-popular "You mean when you open up my document you see something different?"

9: Assuming the computer is always right

This user fails to recognize that the modern computer is more like television than the Delphic oracle. Even the most credulous people recognize that not everything they see on television is true, but some users think the computer is different. "There's something wrong with the company server." "What makes you think that?" "Because when I try to log in, it says server not found." ... "Why did you click on that pop-up?" "It said I had a virus and that I had to."

10: "It's POSSESSED!!"

Users who are ordinarily rational can still succumb to superstition when the computer or its peripherals seem to stop paying any attention to them and start acting crazy -- like when the screen suddenly fills with a code dump, or a keyboard problem overrides their input, or a newly revived printer spews out pages of gibberish. It serves to validate the secretly held suspicion that computers have a mind of their own -- and that mind isn't particularly stable.

Magic?

We're used to seeing superstitions among gamblers and athletes, who frequently engage in high-stakes performances with largely unpredictable outcomes. That superstitions also show up when people use computers -- algorithmic devices designed to be completely predictable -- is either evidence of human irrationality or an interesting borderline case of Clarke's Third Law: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

What kinds of superstitious behavior have you seen among your users? Have you been able to ease them past the abyss of their irrational convictions?


Jaime Henriquez has been working in IT since the 1970s, with time off to pick up a Ph.D. in technology and culture.

157 comments
ananthap
ananthap

I don't know whether this counts. In my previous organisation - where I spent a large portion of my career - many old Unix DBAs do `sync` twice before `shutdown`. It was said to sync the data correctly. Any eaon or is it also superstition? End

dkidd23
dkidd23

I have been reading this off and on all day. At one point my boss (owner of the company) came over to see what was so funny and asked me how this was work related. I laughed and sent her the link because she fits into several of the categories. When I heard laughter from her office, I knew everything was okay. I wanted to share that sometimes, the user isn't so crazy as we think. This problem happened on my first job as a technical support person in a government office in 1994. We had just finished upgrading to ethernet a few months before and also switching all the workstations from DOS based machines to Windows based machines (Windows 3.11 for Workgroups [DOS on Steroids - prone to rage attacks]). Many of the users had never used a mouse before, but I digress. One user kept complaining that when in Excel, all the gridlines would disappear. I would show up and there would be no problem. This happened over the course of two weeks and it never failed. As soon as I appeared, the gridlines were there. I tried everything to duplicate the issue. Finally, my boss tired of the complaints told me to sit with her until happened. Sure enough, the gridlines really did disappear and a few moments later showed back up. I checked her video cable, put in a new monitor, new cable, even tried a new computer and the same thing would happen in excel. I was frustrated and when I get frustrated, I take my glasses off, lean my head back and rub my eyes. It was then I noticed the flourescent lights were flickering and it clicked. On a regular basis, the lights would flicker at the same rate as the refresh rate on the monitor and make ever other line disappear momentarily. I stood up on the desk, disconnected the bulbs and problem was solved. She had been calling the wrong number, a quick call to building maintenance fixed the issue.

softmkr-net
softmkr-net

"computer users are undoubtedly smarter than pigeons"... i'm not so sure about this

dhoward
dhoward

Excessive fear of upgrades If it's M$, it is usually NOT an unfounded fear based in superstition. It;s generally REAL!!

Zeppo9191
Zeppo9191

When I visit a user who then can't duplicate the issue they reported, I like to joke that computers are afraid of me.

jmarkovic32
jmarkovic32

#3 was spot on. Everytime I investigate a stalled printer or there are 30 instances of the same app open on a user computer it's because of #3. It's definately due to a lack of understanding about computers. If you call a friend and he doesn't pick up right away, do you keep calling him until he picks up? No you wait a few minutes and try again.

dwinsemius
dwinsemius

From a "user" ... Stuff your #1: Just because you do not know enough about the application I am using, your brain-stem reflex is tell me to waste the time it takes to reboot and log in again to your incredibly baroque corporate server farms located eighteen to thirty IP jumps away, just so you can then tell the "service level 2 guy" that you followed procedure, and you think think I am being unreasonable for not wanting to reboot? Sheesh.

g.sweet
g.sweet

I like to prank around with users that aren't quite all there when it comes to IT stuff. So, sometimes when a user has a problem, a get out the Magic Computer Fix-Up Cup (a small doll house coffee mug) and wave it over the PC and monitor, while chanting a little bit---magic computer cup--fix my computer up--take the bad spirits out--and with it, bring a shout--out, out, out. There, that should do it. Another one I like to do is when IT gets a notice about a virus on users pc-- take a handheld barcode scanner down and tell the user that their PC needs to be scanned for virus'. They usually happily move over and watch as the scanner tells me about the virus they have already been warned about. Both are very funny to me. Try them.

PurpleSkys
PurpleSkys

I swear, this pc I have now is Possessed...lol...i've never had so many BSOD's in all my years of computing ;)...

boothby
boothby

Years ago, when I was sharing an 8086 with another engineer at Grumman Aerospace, an accountant in our group came over and asked in I could help him with his accounting program. I had never even SEEN his program, but I figured with a judicious use of the F1 key, I could move things along. Things were going well when I looked at him scribbling notes down...he was writing down every keystroke I had typed, including multiple backspaces when I (a first time user) had misspelled or mis-typed something. He had no concept of a program as a tool. It was a god that had to be appeased by entering the magic letters and numbers in a perticular order...

damon.mac88
damon.mac88

Rofl , it is really THE common type..

mjdstadler
mjdstadler

In the 80s I had a client that used dBase III to track a donor list. I noticed that the data entry person had begun to collect various crystals and place then on the CPU. Not recognizing this symptom I assumed she just collected them. What was actually happening was that errors had begun to creep into the system and the database and she'd used crystals for her health issues (won't go there, too off-topic) and presumed they'd help with an ailing computer. They didn't.

KSoniat
KSoniat

When they complained something didn't work and when I came and it worked for me - that they had to hold their tongue on the left side of their mouth.

maecuff
maecuff

Well..I just went through an upgrade this weekend. 40 hours of hell. And yes, every problem so far this week has been a result of the upgrade. Even those problems that couldn't POSSIBLY be related to the upgrade were because of the upgrade.

bobjorg
bobjorg

I't nothing new, I worked with an IBM 360 that would seem to correct itself when the IBM Field Engineer (their term for the repairman) walked in the door. Never did figure this one out.

Slvrknght
Slvrknght

Can't we just assume that's a given?

freaknout
freaknout

#2 is a real true. Once had a Norton Live update that messed with an ATI video driver resulting in spontaneous continuous reboots in XP. Think about it every time an update is applied now. Thank god for acronis true image

Fireboss
Fireboss

I sometimes tell my less than savvy clients that we'll have to meet at dawn and sacrifice a goat. Be sure to bring your toga and the goat. Never had one turn up though. Possibly they couldn't find a goat?

htullier
htullier

I worked with one of those guys too. Ages ago you would issue multiple sync commands to flush the buffers before bringing the system down. The shutdown script handles all the housekeeping needed before bringing the system down and has two or three sync commands in it, so the additional ones are just extra typing.

mad tabby
mad tabby

I'm pretty sure you're right. Perhaps we should put their computers behind bob traps and fire the ones that can't figure out how to get through?

AmuroMax
AmuroMax

Give em a chance. Computers dominated us but not everyone is into them. Great list. Encountered most of them. Totally true about the "presence fixes problems" aura.

tracy.walters
tracy.walters

...through this discussion before somebody had to say they hate Microsoft...now the OS religion wars will start in earnest.

SKDTech
SKDTech

Even Linux and Apple PCs suffer from bad updates. It is infeasible to test updates against every possible combination of hardware and software that may be in use "in the wild". Given this fact, you should give them credit for not breaking things more often.

crazytonyi
crazytonyi

Just because you don't know enough about the application that you are using to fix it yourself doesn't give you the privilege to critique basic troubleshooting steps. I have wasted up to an hour with users trying to "fix" the "problem" using any technique other than a reboot just because they didn't want to endure the 45 seconds it would take and because they didn't want to have to bookmark the YouTube video they've had open for two weeks that they plan to get around to watching. If you're calling for help, you should be gracious to the person who is trying to help you. Yes, maybe doing a reboot is not the intuitive fix for your problem, but yknow what? If it DOES work for some cah-razy reason, you aren't going to thank the person and you aren't going to admit it was a good idea; you are simply going to be embarrassed and say "well this program is stupid." You're welcome. And if it I did escalate it to the "service level 2 guy" (which, by the way, usually is a real title which a tech earns by being more experienced and knowledgeable, so take your quotes and stuff those) simply so I can say I followed procedure, why do you care? If I didn't do it, I get yelled at by that tech for not trying it, I get yelled at by my boss for cutting corners, I get fired because I wanted to placate your ridiculous need to never cut the damn power off of your precious computer. I guess your job doesn't have any protocols or procedures and you never have to do anything simply to avoid getting grief from your boss. Lucky you. In the mean time, if your so savvy about how my job works, why are you making it harder by refusing to do something that might actually fix the problem?

cquirke
cquirke

Rebooting is a hassle, but "just" re-installing blows settings, loses patches, and may fail if the problem is at a lower level of abstraction (as it so often is). example; let's say your RAM went bad a week ago. Your code base was installed before this, and is likely still 99% good, but the things you've recently saved are likely to be corrupted. Some bright spark suggests you "just" re-install Windows without verifying the hardware, and now you have a corrupted code base... plus writing that massive wad of files is more likely to have corrupted the file system and/or overwritten data.

john.jelks
john.jelks

That was great. Please stop; you're killing me here.

csmith.kaze
csmith.kaze

Stuff your stupidity. 99% of all computer problems are fixed with a reboot. And I will bet your IT dept knows more about all of your daily programs than you do about one. Maybe you should try to actually grok what we do.

Ocie3
Ocie3

that no one wants to just issue a software version in which all of the major problems, if not also some minor ones too, in prior versions have been "fixed". The programmers will [i]not[/i] be happy unless they have been allowed to also "make some changes" to the design and/or operation of the software -- as well as add at least one new feature, or an increase in the options for configuration, or whatever else they [i]prefer[/i] to do besides "just debug it". Those other activities give some programmers a chance to show that they are more important (?) than the ones who are assigned to just debugging the software. Of course, doing any of those additional actions has an inherent risk of introducing some more "bugs", and doing them usually does.

frylock
frylock

I've been through enough problematic upgrades to hold my breath every time I take the plunge. Actually, I find the converse of your example to be more superstitious - the assumption that all upgrades are beneficial. These upgrades do come from the same source that created the problem you're hoping to fix after all.

gwcarter
gwcarter

I saw that for years. The actual problem was with the coating on the metal in the ribbon cables, but the dispatch time of the FE CE's (we really were called that) made it look like the machine was sensitive to our presence.

Ocie3
Ocie3

In Abilene, Texas?? They would be more likely to find a goat than a toga! :-)

HLecter
HLecter

to solve an 'intermittent' problem .. and convinced a manager that no one was getting work done on time because he was using up all the network bandwidth listening to internet radio. this work is just too much fun LOL

ECadima
ECadima

As far as I can tell, noone has said they hate microsoft. dhoward presented an argument, based on his/her experience. You may or may not agree with it, and you are free to put forward your arguments. What does reek of religious intolerance is labeling someone as a "microsoft-hater" just because they have dared to present an argument unfavourable to MS, and using that label to avoid debate about what was said. Please don't label the person. Respond to what they have said instead.

maclovin
maclovin

Yeah, Apple released ONE bad update: 10.4.10, which caused some SCSI card problems.....ONE Linux....is free, so f$ck it, they do MUCH better than MS "It's infeasable to test for every hardware combination"....Righto, that's why you have to buy a whole new computer to use Vista or 7 MS' mistakes on releases include: 95, 98, 98SE, ME (Yikes!), 2000, 2000 SP1, 2000 SP2, 2000 SP3, XP, XP SP1, XP SP3 2000 SP4 wasn't that bad XP SP2 wasn't that bad either XP SP3 caused problems with my Remote Desktop Connection App, and then wouldn't let me open it anymore, so I literally can't use that app unless I reinstall the OS 3.1 Was undoubtedly the best Windows EVER...b/c they copied much of it from someone else, who will remain nameless :D

oldbaritone
oldbaritone

your Windows system completes a shutdown and cold-reboot in 45 seconds? WOW! My system has barely spun up the hard drives and completed BIOS POST in that time!

dwinsemius
dwinsemius

I don't doubt that is your response, but if all your colleagues agree then helpdesks should just be closed down. The programs I use needed to be installed and maintained by me, because the IT department never heard of them. I have pretty much given up calling Helpdesks. I can just imagine what sort of response I would get if I asked: "how to implement a Poisson regression model using the mgcv package"? It's hard to encode blank looks and silence, but "huh?" might be the best summary of what I expect.

glasswalker
glasswalker

Two of us walked into a manager's office to see what was causing his computer to 'freak out'. First thing we see? A 6"X6" magnet calendar on the side of the case. D'oh!

joetechsupport
joetechsupport

Or just evolution. I did desktop support for a firm for 6 years. Initially, testing consisted of little more trying the mod out on the developer's own computer. I groaned at "upgrades" because I'd be fixing them. Over time & complaints from branch managers we (I want to say they) were forced to implement proper testing. It started with 1 machine that was a generic combo of 3 types of machine which evolved into a proper test lab that the desktops replicated WAN linkage, servers etc present at a remote branch. Then we moved to test the inhouse branch on sporadically used stations, then to all and finally the WAN deployment. Coupled with prior communication to the Branch Managers and Super-Users as we called them. They got a certificate after a 3 day training. They were picked from the already most proficient users. The company was quite Hierarchical and change request used to be like a peasant kneeling to The Emperor after bribing the viceroys. But we got it right in the end. Upgrades ceased to be from user, Helpdesk and Desktop "OmiGod, here we f***ing go again" events: I didn't create the changes though others & I dropped hints.

wcollar
wcollar

When we have a really recalcitrant computer that just won't run, I've found that setting an 8 lb sledge hammer down next to it often resolves the problem. Must be something about the magnetic field around a mass of iron that does it, or else it's the threat of a really HARD reboot.

ldenny
ldenny

dwinsemius is very arrogant. It is a good thing he doesn't call helpdesk anymore because I'm sure they don't want to work with him either. If you are going to be "management", wouldn't one of the first things you learn and foster in your company to respect others and the jobs that they do? Apparently you are above needing help from other members of your staff.

Ocie3
Ocie3

have error-detection and error-correction features. Changing just one bit in a byte is not going to have an effect, because it will be detected and corrected. If memory serves, whatever changes a byte has to change at least three bits, and the error-detection process can at least recognize how many have been changed, but not which ones. But that was quite a long time ago, and I am not apprised of the current state of the technology.

Henriquez
Henriquez

...to what degree random bad bits are possible? I'm sure you're right that they're less likely to cause trouble than imperfect programming, but I did read (in something I took to be valid :)) that bits can be flipped (ones to zeros or vice versa) by, for example, cosmic rays. A highly energetic particle gets lucky and runs into a bit, I would think that might do it. Also, I believe the distinction of one versus zero is determined by voltage above or below a certain threshold. Wherever there's a line drawn, there can be borderline cases: a one so "close" to a zero that it might be read as either. I'll happily bow to superior knowledge on this, I'm just curious if anyone has better information.

SKDTech
SKDTech

I phrased my argument poorly and obfuscated what I was trying to convey.

SKDTech
SKDTech

But the person who responded to my post after you did phrased it better so please refer to that one.

cquirke
cquirke

"Random bad bits"? Not if your hardware is working properly... what's more likely to happen is that bugs corrupt shared memory structures like heaps, and/or these memory resources become depleted due to "leaks" (allocations that are not released). These glitches tend to compound each other during the runtime session, and as you say, starting a new runtime will clear these. Another problem that may be cleared in the same way, is where some subsystem is latched into a non-functional error state. A fresh boot forces many assumptions to be rebuilt, so that a state that is checked only at boot but which has subsequently changed, is refreshed.

Ocie3
Ocie3

Quote: "... because rebooting clears the memory, thus flushing random bad bits that creep in." Do you know it to be a fact that "random bad bits" [i]always[/i] creep into memory regardless of the hardware and/or the software?? Since when has any computer that passed its exit exam at the end of the assembly line done anything "randomly"?? Automatically rebooting a computer just because, for example, either the operating system or an application has displayed an error message dialog sounds very, very much like [b]superstition[/b] to me. ;-) Granted, there are situations in which there is no other choice, such as a BSOD, or because the operating system and/or the application(s) are not responding to user input (e.g., the keyboard). Your comments remind me of an ISP that I used while I was running a computer that had a 100 MHz Intel 80486 CPU and ran Windows '95. There were an almost-daily series of continually recurring problems, and the "solution" that was almost always, ultimately, demanded by their tech support was "re-install Windows!". So I did that, and the problem(s) went away until, usually, after the third or fourth system reboot (i.e., the start of the next day) -- followed by another call to their tech support and another re-installation of Windows '95. Then came the weekend when the ISP decided to install some "new software" for their network. We were offline for at least 24 hours without being able to know in advance which of the 24 hours during the 72 that we would be offline. After that change, my calls to their tech support were reduced to about once per month or less. (One was when the main backbone of the Internet from Seattle all the way down to Los Angeles was down for a few hours.) And I don't recall that, during the next few months that they remained in business, I had to reinstall Windows 95 for any reason at all. Yeah, rebooting "solves" so many problems (that you can't?) because it eliminates the spirit demons that put random garbage into the computer's memory banks and degrade Windows XP, right? :-0 :-)

johan
johan

They probably haven't installed it. How should they fix a program that is not theirs? Besides, the whole point of a call to the helpdesk, is to fix your problem. If your problem is fixed with a reboot we have reached the goal of the conversation. Most It people also do not like programs that work, and sometimes not work. I'd love to get to the bottom of your failing program after the machine hasn't booted in 72hours. But higher (business) management is only willing to locate resources to problems that still exist after reboot. You get what you pay for.....

SKDTech
SKDTech

A great number of issues can be resolved with a reboot because rebooting clears the memory, thus flushing random bad bits that creep in. Rebooting your PC allows us to ensure that any further troubleshooting is performed in a relatively clean computing environment. Now we can start trying to isolate the problem by removing potential application conflicts, checking update status, settings and various other potential sources of the problem.

zclayton3
zclayton3

How you determined that one out. A bit of percussive maintenance?