“the big problems with email are not just technical – they’re psychological”

Odds are you receive too much email. Whatever you do to combat the problem seems pointless. That's because email is not only technical problem, it's also a psychological one.

Tom Stafford argues that understanding the psychological problems with email allow us to better manage email, rather than let it manage us.


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.

Reaping rewards

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.

and hyperbolic discounting

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.