Email’s Dark Side: 10 Psychology Studies

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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.

6. Email kills sarcasm (and emotional communication)

People consistently overestimate their ability to communicate effectively with email. A series of studies by Kruger et al. (2005) found that both senders and receivers don’t realise how poor email is for communicating things like sarcasm.

In one study participants thought that their sarcasm would be communicated 80% of the time. Face-to-face this was accurate, but over email the actual figure was 56%.

This overconfidence was also seen when people tried to communicate anger, sadness, seriousness and humour in an email. Without body language cues, it’s hard to communicate more than literal meanings. Sorry, emoticons don’t cut it :-(

7. People feel less co-operative

Email negotiations often feel difficult, especially with people we don’t know well. When Naquin et al. (2008) compared them with face-to-face negotiations, they found that people were less co-operative over email and even felt more justified in being less co-operative.

Part of the reason negotiations are difficult is that people tend to be more negative on email. For example, Kurtzberg et al. (2005) found that when people evaluated each other in performance appraisals using both pen-and-paper and email, they were consistently more negative about their colleagues when using email.

8. Low rapport on email

Another reason negotiations can be difficult over email is that when negotiating with a stranger, because email is so short and to-the-point,  there is little or no rapport to fall back on. So if negotiations hit a problem, they can quickly fall apart.

Morris et al. (2002) have found that even a single telephone call can create enough good feeling between the parties to bridge the rapport gap.

9. Lying feels more justified

People will lie in any medium, but compared with pen-and-paper, they lie more over email and feel that lying is more justified. In Naquin et al.’s (2010) study, participants lied 50% more when they negotiated over email compared with pen-and-paper. They propose three reasons:

  1. Emails are less permanent: it feels closer to chatting than writing a letter.
  2. Less restrained: people feel freer online because of the online disinhibition effect.
  3. Lower personal connection: over email we feel psychologically distant, resulting in low trust and rapport.

10. Irritating emailers

A fluffly AOL survey has classified the most irritating types of emailers by the type of emails they send (Woffenden, 2004). In order of how irritating, from most to least:

  1. The cryptic: rated the most irritating type of emailer, this person fills their emails with unexplained acronyms, mostly to try and impress the boss.
  2. The author: thinks they are writing a novel not an email.
  3. The forwarder: sends on every idiotic chain letter and joke they receive, apparently without exercising their judgement.
  4. The player: claims not to have received your email. Quite irritating; but in these days of spam filters, hard to prove.
  5. The smiley: emoticon users were amongst the least irritating types of emailer.
  6. The succinct: the least irritating type of emailer keeps it short and to the point.

Email cold turkey

The practical up shots of this research are nothing you won’t have heard before: check you email less, remember the costs of task-switching, keep email succinct. Finally, remember it can be difficult to maintain relationships online because people feel psychologically distant from one another, so make a call every now and then.

Because email isn’t the all-powerful application it once was, with the advent of texting, Facebook, Twitter and the rest, we tend to forget both how useful email is and how dangerous it can be. I’ve avoided overblown talk of addiction, but given this research there’s certainly a case for going email cold turkey every now and then.

Image credits: Lars Plougmann & Biscotte

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About the author


Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 1 September 2010

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Images: Creative Commons License