Monday, September 13, 2010

Why is checking e-mail just like gambling?

Who checks e-mail compulsively?   I do.  

Much of my e-mail is junk.  At best, it is boring work-related stuff which I’d rather not know about.  But once in a while, I get a greeting from a good friend, a report of an encouraging result from a student, ...   So I keep checking my e-mail religiously, in the vain hope of receiving something good.  The signal to noise ratio is really low.   However, since the arrival of reward is unpredictable, I keep coming back for more. 

Isn’t it just like gambling?  Most of the time we lose.   But once in a blue moon we hit the jackpot.  It is this unpredictability that motivates gamblers, even though gamblers know that in the long run (on average), the probability is such that they will lose.  In behavioral psychology, it is given the fancy name “variable-ratio schedule of reinforcement.”

I read about this in Dan Ariely’s interesting book “Predictably Irrational.”  In the book, there are lots of observations on how and when we often make decisions irrationally.  He is a behavioural economist.   Traditional economics assumes that people make rational decisions.  Behavioural economists argue that psychology can cause us to make irrational but predictable decisions.     

There is one big difference between compulsive checking of email, and compulsive gambling, however, which is not mentioned in the book.   I can increase the probability of finding an interesting email in my mailbox when I check it, by checking less often.   But even we gamble less often, we will still end up losing.  So I don’t. 


law said...

i have the attention span of a 3 year old child, but i have been captured by many of your insights, photographs and philosophies.

props and keep writing!

Chris said...

actually... checking compulsively doesn't affect the amount of mail that comes in. in fact, checking more often lowers the probability of finding an interesting email in your inbox each time you check.