The Physical Relief of the Escape Key

By Wesley Fenlon

We don't always interact with computers in the most logical ways, but we do really like mashing on buttons.

Here's a situation that should sound familiar. You're using your computer. An application locks up. You click on the window, anyway, to see if it does anything. The application hangs. It's not responding. Instead of giving up, and walking away, you keep clicking--maybe on that application, maybe elsewhere on the desktop. Click. Click. The longer you wait, the angrier you get. Click click click. Your computer is no longer under your control. Clickclickclickclickclickclickclickclickclick.

The most likely answer to "Why do users click randomly and rapidly when an application hangs?", recently posed to StackExchange, is irrational frustration. After the first couple clicks, we know an application isn't going to respond, so we keep clicking in frustration. It's an expression of powerlessness. The question garnered some interesting answered that actually dig into the psychology of man-machine interaction.

Photo credit: Flickr user juditk via Creative Commons.

"People tend to think of their interface in physical terms," says one response. "You think of a 'window' not a 'rectangle of lights on a matrix'. And so, when an application hangs, people revert to interacting with it in the way they might do with a physical object when it stops working.Shaking things seems to be the way that many people try to 'fix' a physical object that isn't working, and the digital equivalent to this is to beat it with your clicking might."

Another cites the psychology of learned behavior and quotes the book You Are Not So Smart:

"Take, as an example, a pigeon that has been reinforced to peck an electronic button. During its training history, every time the pigeon pecked the button, it will have received a small amount of bird seed as a reinforcer. So, whenever the bird is hungry, it will peck the button to receive food. However, if the button were to be turned off, the hungry pigeon will first try pecking the button just as it has in the past. When no food is forthcoming, the bird will likely try again ... and again, and again. After a period of frantic activity, in which their pecking behavior yields no result, the pigeon's pecking will decrease in frequency."

But the most interesting response focuses on a reaction that's slightly different from repeatedly clicking a mouse. It talks about the escape key, and how it has evolved into a button that means Stop! Abort! Back out! Get me outta here!

The New York Times magazine wrote about the history of the escape key in 2012; surprisingly, it wasn't originally designed to close out of programs:

"The key was born in 1960, when an I.B.M. programmer named Bob Bemer was trying to solve a Tower of Babel problem: computers from different manufacturers communicated in a variety of codes. Bemer invented the ESC key as way for programmers to switch from one kind of code to another. Later on, when computer codes were standardized (an effort in which Bemer played a leading role), ESC became a kind of “interrupt” button on the PC — a way to poke the computer and say, 'Cut it out.'

Why 'escape?' Bemer could have used another word — say, 'interrupt' — but he opted for 'ESC, a tiny monument to his own angst. Bemer was a worrier. In the 1970s, he began warning about the Y2K bug, explaining to Richard Nixon’s advisers the computer disaster that could occur in the year 2000. Today, with our relatively stable computers, few of us need the panic button. But Bob Frankston, a pioneering programmer, says he still uses the ESC key. 'There’s something nice about having a get-me-the-hell-out-of-here key.' "