What’s Behind the Compulsion to Check Email

Do you feel annoyed and burdened by email and yet feel a perverse desire to check it throughout the day, even when you don’t really need to? As if maybe something really interesting or important is waiting in the Inbox? (This hope is usually disappointed, of course.) In an interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air Tuesday, New York Times technology reporter Matt Richtel explained why we persist in this behavior. It’s called intermittent reinforcement.

Although most of the time our email is not exciting, every once in a while we find something rewarding – an email from a friend, a response we have been waiting for, a pleasant surprise. These unpredictable rewards condition us to continue seeking gratification by checking our email frequently. We are like the rats in BF Skinner‘s experiments. Skinner found that rats who occasionally received a food reward when they pressed a bar would repeatedly press the bar, to the point of neglecting other vital activities like drinking and resting. Their behavior was in stark contrast to the rats who received consistent, reliable food rewards; they pressed the bar until they had their fill and then resumed playing or napping until they wanted to eat again.

Thinking of my own behavior in terms of a conditioned response to unreliable stimuli put it in such an unappealing light! I suddenly could see the compulsion for what it was – a vain and somewhat obsessive attempt to satisfy my hunger for … what, exactly? “I’m no rat!” I declared ….. and then I had to forcibly restrain myself from stopping mid-paragraph while blogging to ….. you guessed it.

It turns out that intermittent reward is the strongest reinforcement, the hardest to extinguish.* But I am determined to try to get this particular rodent-like obsession under control and re-condition my responses. This week I will consistently reinforce alternative behaviors, such as turning off my computer or pda when I don’t need them, and rewarding myself for completing a task without interrupting myself. Like now. I just finished my blog, and I will reward myself with a good night’s sleep. I’ll let you know how it goes. And if you have any ideas for how to kick the habit, please share them by leaving a comment. (Go ahead! Be the first!)

*Parents of young children know this … even if you cave in only once to the request for popsicles your kids will beg you every time you hear that telltale jingle of the ice cream cart.