Why you can’t stop checking your e-mail

Our brains are wired to constantly seek novelty, and every new email that lands in our inbox with a ping sends a dopamine-fueled shiver of excitement through our cerebrum. Turning off notifications and setting and communicating clear email . . . can disrupt that addictive dopamine loop.

Addicted, by Peggy

But behavioral science would suggest there’s more than just neurotransmitters at work.

“a factor that may be driving our inability to disconnect is the peak-end rule, whereby people tend to judge an experience based on what it felt like at its most intense point and at the end. In other words, what we remember most about our inbox is just how awful it feels to face all those unanswered emails — that endless, running to-do list of other people’s priorities — that have piled up while we were away.  So we keep checking just to avoid that pain.

Another factor could be our human predilection for making decisions based on short-term payoffs, like deciding to fall back into a warm bed in the morning rather than get up and exercise.
“We love to get things ‘done,'” explained Iris Bohnet, a behavioral economist at the Harvard Kennedy School. “Email is terrible for that. If you only respond to these 10 emails, it feels like an accomplishable task.”

Ironically, if we did stop checking email, we really wouldn’t miss that much. In a survey, Daniel Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke, found that only 11% of the emails in our inboxes require immediate attention. The other 89% can wait.




6 comments on “Why you can’t stop checking your e-mail

  1. I had never heard of this ‘dopamine shiver. How did we then have sufficient dopamine before the blings on computers of various sorts? Except with certain illnesses we obviously produced sufficient.
    I believe… it might just be psychological reasons. Just a hunch.😊 .


    • I agree, there are psychological reasons. Also we adjust to what is available. For example, if we get a LOT of dopamine hits, we actually adjust our sensitivity so we react less. This is one of the processes that drives addiction-you become less sensitive to the positive hits.


  2. A perfect description: “that endless, running to-do list of other people’s priorities.” We need to focus on our own priorities, including family and friends. Information at our fingertips has become a demand from employers to be at their beck and call every minute of the day. I had a recent job where the admin gave out my cell phone number to people who shouldn’t have had it.


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