Why is email addictive?

Alllooo? Where's my email?

A while back, the bloggers at MindHacks posted a theory as to why email is so addictive. (i.e. “I must hit the ‘get mail’ button at least a hundred times a day. Sometimes, if I don’t have any new mail, I hit it again immediately, just to check. I interrupt my work to check my mail even when I know that I’m not going to find anything interesting and that I should just concentrate on what I am supposed to be doing….”)

Ok, that sounds way too familiar for my liking!

Now, although there are varying theories as to why email can be an incredibly addictive pursuit (for some), MindHacks base their conjecture on the principles of operant conditioning, which is the theory that what we do and how we act depends on the rewards and punishments resulting from what we did last time around.

The salient angle here lies with the concept of intermittent or variable reinforcement, which occurs when we receive rewards only some of the time for performing certain behaviours.  What’s curious is that intermittent reinforcement has actually been shown to be the most effective way to ensure repeated behaviour.  Loosely translated, if a kid gets a candy only some of the time, that kid is more likely to repeat the potential candy-resulting behaviour than a kid that gets rewarded all of the time (i.e. mucho candy, all day long).

Why, you ask?  Well, because the kid is never sure as to whether the reward is coming or not, not only do they get used to performing the behaviour without reward, they also take longer to stop the behaviour even if the reward is removed!  Sort of a cruel but effective trick really.

Now, in the context of email, the authors suggest that a possible “reward” could be when one gets an email from a friend, or a funny joke, or some kind of fun distraction, like say a blog of some kind :).  As you never know when one of those bundles of joy will be in your inbox, we hit send/receive ad nauseum..  And thus, because the infinite ‘next time’ just might be the occasion that produces sweet reward, so hope springs eternal and off we dash after that elusive – oh hang on sec – I just got an email!!

P.S.  One of the classic examples of experimentation in this area is the so-called Skinner box – which may recall Psych101 for some.  The Skinner Box in its most basic iteration is in effect an operant conditioning chamber.  In one particular experiment, rats were given food pellet rewards when they pushed a lever in the chamber.  True to the tenets of intermittent reward, rats that were given food pellets only once in a while (as opposed to rats given pellets every single time they depressed the lever), went ballistic on the lever, pushing it as many times as they possibly could, in the faint hope that this time the pellet cometh!