From time to time, modern technology does not always work the way that we want it to. How often do you lose reception on your smartphone when you need to make that urgent call? Or perhaps you have an issue with a piece of software or an app that just will not work the way it should? More importantly, how do you respond when you encounter a failure in digital technology? Maybe you are the type of person that relishes the opportunity to solve the problem, no matter how long it takes you, or perhaps you are more likely to throw the offending piece of technology out of the window!

Such failures in digital technology have been noted to be commonplace, with studies suggesting that experiences resulting in some form of frustrating response account for between 30.5–45.9% of the time an individual spends on a computer. As digital technology invades more and more of our daily lives, so too does our reliance on it. New terms, such as Fear of Missing out (FoMO) have been used to capture a deep-seated anxiety that individuals experience when they are cut off from their online lives. The concept of internet addiction has also been used extensively in research to describe a problematic engagement with the online world, potentially fuelling other technology-based addictions such as online gambling, gaming, shopping, social media, and pornography. Interestingly, the actual response to an event that causes frustration can be viewed in two distinct ways. On the one hand, individuals can have a negative (or maladaptive) response, which usually involves some form of aggressive outburst, feelings of self-doubt, isolation, and self-blaming. These responses often make the situation wholly worse for the individual, and in turn make finding a way around the issue a lot harder. In contrast, there are adaptive responses, those that drive the individual to find a work-around for the issue they have encountered, redirecting their energies in a more productive, problem-oriented way.

In recent research conducted at De Montfort University, we surveyed 630 people aged between 18-68 to examine how aspects such as personality, internet addiction, age and FoMO impacted on their responses to failures with digital technology. Personality is often broken down into a number of individual traits, on which an individual can score higher or lower on. In our study, we focused on the core “BIG 5” personality traits, including conscientiousness (how committed you are to doing the right thing), agreeableness (how much you like to get along with people and avoid conflict), neuroticism (how much you worry about things), openness (how willing you are to engage in new experiences), and extraversion (how outgoing you are). The results demonstrated that those individuals who scored higher on the traits of neuroticism and extraversion were more likely to react in a more extreme, maladaptive way to failures in digital technology. Similarly, those individuals who reported higher levels of FoMO and Internet addiction also had more extreme reactions to digital technology failures. In contrast, those people who scored higher on the traits of agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness were more likely to adopt an adaptive approach to failures in digital technology. This means individuals with these traits are more likely to search for help, or try to solve the problem themselves, as opposed to searching for someone to blame, lashing out on social media, or just giving up.

It is not surprising that those individuals who have higher levels of FoMO and Internet addiction have the more extreme responses when it comes to failures with digital technology. Obviously, for these individuals, their connection to the online, digital environment represents a critical part of their everyday life. If something prevents them from getting online, perhaps due to broadband issues, loss of WiFi signal or computer malfunction, they respond accordingly. There is some research to suggest that individuals may already have a “frustration tendency” associated with their capacity to cope with events that are irksome. It could be that the specific personality types, such as those discussed, are more resilient to the frustration tendency, meaning these individuals are less likely to experience the more extreme responses. For example, the personality trait of agreeableness has been linked to a better capacity to internalise anger where a situation causes frustration. However, it also appears that higher frustration tendency is associated with specific personality types, as well as some of the artifacts associated with the modern digital society. The way in which we view digital technology can also influence our reactions – the term ethopoeia is used to describe a belief that digital technology has inherently human-like characteristics… and the more we think this, the more likely we are to experience anger and increased frustration in the context of a breakdown…. because technology is “out to get us” or “hates us.”

There is a point to this research. As we engage more and more in the digital environment, we need to ensure that everyone is able to deal with issues that may occur with technology. The maladaptive responses individuals experience are often due to a lack of specific knowledge of how to deal with that situation, or a heavy, misplaced reliance on certain types of digital technology. By understanding who is most likely to experience more adverse reactions to problems with digital technology, we can target advice and education more effectively. Such advice, no matter how simple, may help people deal with real threats that loom on the horizon, such as large scale outages as a result of cybercrime and cyberwarfare.