Computers and grandmother mortality rates

by Eszter Hargittai on January 6, 2005

As Adams (1990) suggests a college “student’s grandmother is far more likely to die suddenly just before the student takes an exam, than at any other time of year”. I’ve been contemplating – but have yet to conduct rigorous data-collection to test this hypothesis – that perhaps the increasing importance of computers on university campuses may benefit the health of college students’ grandmothers. The number of crashes and other computer-related problems (“the dog ate my computer and my roommate’s computer, too”) seems to be surprisingly high when projects are due. Of course, it may just be that computers are crashing all the time, students never have online access, but it is only when assignments are due that we happen to hear about it. In any case, if all this means fewer deaths in college students’ families, that’s probably a nice side-effect of growing IT uses at universities.



brayden 01.06.05 at 5:18 pm

Another possibility is that students generally lack good time or crisis management skills and this becomes amplified when finals time arrives. The panic and stress associated with the end of the semester seems to make some students more incompetent than usual – they become incapable of dealing with regular, everday problems when running on stressed-out finals mode. Thus, dealing with a frozen computer may end up freezing the other events in their lives too.


ogmb 01.06.05 at 5:41 pm

An alternative explanation is that elderly relatives die all the time but it’s only during exam season that students pay attention.


student 01.06.05 at 7:45 pm

Another possibility is that computers DO crash more before big assignments. Generally, students spend much more time using their computers right before an assignment, and such activities, like 36 hours of typing on a computer, or frequent switching between different programs, etc. is much more likely to make the computer crash than normal usage. I, as a college student, have noticed this phenomenon in both my computer and those of my friends: generally the harder we are on our computers, the more likely they are to crash, and we are most hard on our computers when we are working frantically to meet deadlines.


neil 01.06.05 at 9:40 pm

This reminded me that in high school, I was pulled out of my calculus final to receive the news that my grandfather had unexpectedly passed away. But I finished the test (the teacher did give me the option of not doing so) having been one of those kids who found serenity in doing math.


belle waring 01.06.05 at 11:59 pm

you need to be careful joking about this sort of thing sometimes. both my grandmothers died during the same 4 month period (i.e. one semester for my brother at law school) and his prof singled him out for skeptical opprobrium, though not by name, in an exam-time lecture. my brother was more than a little irritated, having been close to both grandmothers and having had to go to two funerals 1500 miles apart in his first semester at Penn…


Morrighan 01.07.05 at 2:08 am

As a college student myself, I would suggest that the data is skewed. Grannies die at a constant rate, however, college professors are only aware of the deaths immediately preceding exams, because students have little incentive to inform them about deaths at other times. Similarly, computer errors (crashes, viruses, etc) happen frequently, but college professors are unlikely to hear about those that do not affect a soon-to-be-due paper. Additionally, I would agree with the previous student that we are generally harder on our computers while working to finish big projects, further increasing the chances that profs will hear about (and subsequently complain about) crashes and the like.


William Sjostrom 01.07.05 at 11:42 pm

I am reminded of the Michigan State professor whose student asked to be excused from the exam because his father had just died. The professor agreed without fuss, and then sent a consolation note to the student’s mother. It transpired that the student’s father had not in fact died, and the punishment the student received from his parents far exceeded anything a professor could hand out.

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