BBC Column: Psychological self-defence for the age of email

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…


Reaping rewards


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.


Close thrill


Hyperbolic discounting is another feature of how we’re wired to think about rewards. Discounting is the diminishing value of rewards as they get further away in time. It’s the thing that means that being offered 100 euros today is far more exciting than being offered 100 euros in ten years time. That discounting is hyperbolic means a reward that is very close gets drastically more attractive.


To see this, try thinking about whether you’d like 10 euros now or 20 euros in a year’s time. If you’re an impatient person maybe you’ll favour the 10 euros now, if you’re patient you can maybe wait for the 20 euros in a year’s time. But if we shift both rewards backwards in time by 10 years, the choice stops being ambiguous: 10 euros in ten year’s time, or 20 euros in eleven year’s time is an easy call. Almost everyone would go for the second option.


What this shows is that the choice of a smaller amount of money only seemed attractive because it was closer in time. Hyperbolic discounting is why people will pay money to pick up today’s news, but won’t even bend down to pick up yesterday’s news. Immediacy creates value in our brains.


Going back to email, think of a time you didn’t check your email for a week. If you’re like me, you probably opened your email expecting lots of exciting news – a sum of all the excitement you experience with each individual email. But actually, a week’s worth of email isn’t very exciting. The interest that email generates as you see it arriving in your inbox is an illusion generated by hyperbolic discounting.


Every technology has its own logic, and part of the logic of email is the speed with which it is delivered, with the new mails always pushing their way to the top of the pile. This pull is as insidious as it is intense – apparently 59% of people surveyed by AOL are so addicted to keeping track of their email that they check it in the bathroom.


This is what makes me think that the very speed of email delivery is a handicap – email delivered with a half-hour delay would be easier to judge at its true value, and so be far less distracting.


Responsibility pressure


Finally, a fourth fundamental principle of human reasoning is our sense of ownership or responsibility. I’ve written recently about how we can be tricked into valuing something more by accidents of fate that put that thing in our possession. Email is prey to this bias: once something is there, it is natural to decide that it deserves our consideration, it is somehow our responsibility to read and respond.


Nowhere is this more apparent than the group email and the avalanche of replies that invariably ensues. Strike back by reminding yourself that not all email has to be replied to, that lots of issues will be – and should be – dealt with by other people. Ask yourself: “If I didn’t have this information in my inbox, would I go out looking for it?” Most of the time the answer is probably “no”, and that’s a sign that someone else is controlling your attention.


Unless you diligently maintain the boundaries of exactly what you are responsible for, email becomes a system for letting other people control your time. So delete that email and move on!