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The addictive properties of email (as we normally use it) can be explained by the laws of behaviour. Shall we take a short tour?

There are several types of behavioural reinforcement. Regardless of the technical terms used in Psychology, here are some that I have re-named.

Type 1: ‘The carrot always ready’. A behaviour is reinforced every time it appears. For ‘reinforcement’, and although technically not the same, read reward (monetary, non monetary). The person does something good, the person gets ‘Congratulations, well done’, for example.

Type 2:. ‘The Salary’. The reward (money in this case) comes at a fixed time (interval, in technical terms). Your salary arrives on the 30th of each month, no matter what. Lousy job, great job, salary comes in.

Type 3: ‘The Slot machine’. The reinforcement or reward comes to you in a random and unexpected way. You are doing a good job, but you may or may not get a thanks, or a reward. From time to time though, it comes. You can’t predict it. You just know that it will come at some point. It’s the slot machine system.

There are more types and variations, but let’s consider these three. Type 1 (‘carrot always ready’) loses power quickly. By the third time that your boss says ‘Congratulations, well done’, you are beginning to suspect that you report to a parrot. When this is happening every Wednesday at 4pm, you can be assured that your boss does not have a supernatural memory, but a pre-programmed system of saying Congrats. (Or an excellent secretary.) Type 2 (‘the salary’) is nice, it does not come every day, but it’s good because it’s predictable. You don’t have to worry about it. As a behavioural reinforcement is pretty bad because it rewards both good and bad performance. Type 3 (the ‘slot machine’) gets you hooked because you may or may not get something, so you keep trying. The prospect of getting it, keeps you going. When you get something, you feel your prospects will increase, so you keep trying.

Any (good) student of Experimental Psychology will tell you that Type 3 (the ‘slot machine’) is the most powerful of all behavioural reinforcement types. Read, greatest addiction potential, well above any other. Well, the way we use email is perfect for this. When email is ‘always on’, and emails are pushed to your smartphone or your computer screens, and are announced by a blip, you go to that screen to see if there is something important there. Most of the time there isn’t, but at every blip you go back just in case. Occasionally you get that message form your boss that you must not miss, a piece of relevant news, something you need to react to, something ‘important’. So, just in case, you’ll continue to look at the blackberry or smartphone (blip or no blip) in case there is something ‘you need’. If those important pieces were always to come at 3.45pm every day, you would not be looking constantly at your blackberry. It is the randomness of the reinforcement (the randomness of the slot machine) that makes you addicted to email.

If you are in a permanent state of checking your email on the smartphone or blackberry, you have signs of addiction because, statistically, it is impossible that you should find a relevant piece of information every time. The more random they come, the more addicted you will be.

Everything said here about emails applies to most of social media. You can extrapolate the argument easily.

Cure? There is only one. Limit the inflow to pre-determined windows of time. That is, check only at a more or less fixed times.  Never keep it ‘always on’ or ‘pushing’. If you could do this, and infect your entire team with this behaviour, and they could do the same with others, your collective mental health will flourish.

I am not talking here about ‘email etiquette’. There are hundreds of guidelines about that. But a very simple frame to understand what works and does not in behavioural terms. Unfortunately, the email addiction works very well, because it uses the strongest reinforcement type.

And whilst we are on the topic, de-couple bonus and fixed time, (e.g. Christmas), make it random. You now know why.

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