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September 1, 2010

Email is a fantastic tool, but these ten psychology studies remind us of its dark side.

Like the telephone or the TV, email is a technology so embedded in our lives, we think nothing of it. Both help and hindrance, on one hand it’s the internet’s original ‘killer application’ and on the other it’s a spam-spewing slave-driver.

We’re used to hearing about the negative side of the balance-sheet, about email’s addictive nature and the unnecessary stress it injects into the modern worker’s life, but we downplay these problems because it’s so incredibly useful.

Now that email is well into middle age (the first emails were sent in 1965), let’s take stock of what we know about the darker side of email.

1. 59 per cent check email from the bathroom

You don’t need to be an expert on Pavlov’s drooling dogs to work out why email is so habit-forming. Most of it is humdrum, but occasionally we get something exciting and that’s what we’re hoping for when we check our email. In psychological terms email is a ‘variable-interval reinforcement’: we don’t know exactly when the good stuff is coming so we have to keep checking.

It’s no wonder, according to AOL’s 2010 survey, 47% claim to be hooked on it, 25% of people can’t go without email for more than 3 days, 60% check email on vacation and 59% check email from the bathroom.

2. You check more often than you think

Participants in a study by Renaud et al. (2006) claimed to check their email, on average, once an hour. However when the researchers spied on them, it turned out they checked their email every five minutes.

Despite the small sample size in Renaud’s study (6 people), further research has suggested people do set their email program to check their email every 5 minutes (Jackson et al., 2002) as well as significantly underestimating how often they check their email. As a consequence we also underestimate how disruptive it can be.

3. Email eats a quarter of the working day

When Czerwinski et al. (2004) carried out a diary study of people in various different occupations they found that, on average, people spent 23% of their working day dealing with email.

This is because people are not just using email to communicate, they are also using it as a way of tracking tasks—one study has found that workers are managing an average of 65 tasks in 10 different spheres at any one time (Gonzalez & Mark, 2004).

4. It takes 64 seconds to recover from an email

We often react quickly to incoming email, almost like the phone ringing. In one workplace study, Jackson et al. (2002) found that 70% of emails were reacted to within 6 seconds of their arrival, and 85% within 2 minutes.

The problem is that it took participants in the same study 64 seconds to recover their train of thought after an email interruption.

Add this to the fact that Gonzalez & Mark (2004) have found that people spend an average of only 3 minutes on each task before they switch to another, and it’s difficult to see how anyone can achieve the psychological state of ‘flow’ necessary for complex tasks.

5. Stressed emailers

Given the effort we put into email and all the task-switching that’s going on, it’s unsurprising that it generates stress. Of course we each deal with email in different ways, Hair et al. (2005) have identified three types of emailer:

  1. Relaxed responders treat email almost like snail mail. They refuse to let it control them and get back to people when they feel like it.
  2. Driven responders try to reply instantly to email and expect others to do the same.
  3. Stressed responders don’t find email useful, to them it is mostly an irritation.

My survey revealed 57% of people consider themselves relaxed, 32% driven and 11% stressed emailers, but this may well underestimate the actual number of stressed emailers.

Read in Full:  http://www.spring.org.uk/2010/09/emails-dark-side-10-psychology-studies.php



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