Here’s a pretty safe assumption to make: you probably feel like you’re inundated with email, don’t you? It's a constant trickle that threatens to become a flood. Building up, it is always nagging you to check it. You put up spam filters and create sorting systems, but it’s never quite enough. And that’s because the big problems with email are not just technical – they're psychological. If we can understand these we'll all be a bit better prepared to manage email, rather than let it manage us.
For this psychological self-defence course, we're going to cover very briefly four fundamental aspects of human reasoning. These are features built into how the human mind works. If you know about them, you can watch out for them and – most importantly – catch yourself when one of these tendencies is leading you astray.
Pay it back
First up is reciprocity – our tendency to want to return like for like, whether that is a smile for a smile or a blow for a blow. Persuasion-guru Robert Cialdini cites reciprocity as being one of the six basic principles of influence: do something for someone, so they'll feel they have to do something back. Suddenly freebies from salespeople make a lot more sense (and seem a lot more sinister).
Reciprocity works in email because we're not just sending information through the ether, we're communicating social information. Each email contains simple meta-messages, things like "I'm interested in what you're doing", or "This really matters to me". Reciprocity means that each email is an invitation to a social encounter, and you know what that means – more emails sent back to you in reply.
Just think back to the last time you were away from email for a week: most likely the majority of the emails waiting for you in your inbox were from the first few days of your absence. Lots of our email is self-generated, responses to emails we've sent, a natural reaction oiled by the social grease of reciprocity. And this leads to another aspect of human reasoning, which is…
A part of us loves getting email – it provides basic proof that we're part of society (and often more – it’s concrete evidence that someone wants to talk to us, invite us out, or tell us something). Our animal brains use some simple rules for processing rewards. The most fundamental of these rules is the so called Law of Effect, which simply states that if something is followed by a reward, then animals tend to increase the frequency with which they do it.
But the way email is structured to reach us taps into another basic rule the brain uses for processing reward. Irregular rewards have a special power to enforce repeat behaviour, something discovered by psychologists in the early twentieth century, and known for centuries by people who organise gambling (would anyone play slot machines if they just predictably gave you back 80% of the money you put in each time?).
Email drips into your consciousness during the day. Each time you check it you don't know if you'll be getting another boring work email, which isn't very rewarding, or some exciting news or an opportunity, which is very rewarding. The schedule of these constant opportunities for surprise hooks us into checking email. To avoid it, you just need to fix your email so that you collect it all at once at regular intervals, such as every hour or twice a day, rather than checking each email as it arrives.