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Scientists at California University in Los Angeles (UCLA) have discovered computers can cause heartache simply by ignoring the user. When simulating a game of playground catch with an unsuspecting student, boffins showed that if the software fails to throw the ball to the poor student, he is left reeling from a psychological blow as painful as any punch from a break-time bully.

Matthew Lieberman, one of the experiment's authors and an assistant professor of psychology at UCLA explains that the subject thinks he is playing with two other students sitting at screens in another room, but really the other figures are computer generated. "It's really the most boring game you can imagine, except at one point one of the two computer people stop throwing the ball to the real player," he said.

The scientists used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to monitor brain activity during a ball-tossing game designed to provoke feelings of social exclusion. Initially the virtual ball is thrown to the participating student but after a short while the computer players lob the ball only between themselves. When ignored, the area of the brain associated with pain lights up as if the student had been physically hurt.

Being the class pariah is psychologically damaging and has roots deep in our evolutionary past. "Going back 50,000 years, social distance from a group could lead to death and it still does for most infant mammals," Lieberman said.

The fact that this pain was caused by computers ignoring the user suggests interface designers and software vendors must work especially hard to keep their customers happy, and it's not surprising that failing and buggy software is so frustrating. If software can cause the same emotional disturbance as physical pain, it won't be long before law suits are flying through the courts for abuse sustained at the hands of shoddy programming. ®

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