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Why your mass e-mail requests get ignored

Harvard researchers have discovered that a long-used practice in e-mail communications actually discourages responses.

Why your e-mail requests get ignored
From HBS Working Knowledge
Special to CNET
April 11, 2004, 6:00 AM PDT

We've all done it. We need a piece of information quickly, or we want to get immediate attention from IT support. So we send off an e-mail to multiple recipients--the more lures in the water, the faster we catch a fish, right?

Well, not exactly, Greg Barron says.

Barron, a research fellow at Harvard Business School, and research partner Eldad Yechiam, a postdoctoral research fellow at Indiana University's Department of Psychology, have studied why online help requests are sometimes ignored. He elaborated on his findings in an interview with HBS Working Knowledge.

Your research into online and e-mail help requests and responses is fascinating. How did you become interested in the topic?
Like our first paper's fictitious hero, Sarah Feldman, I wanted responses to my e-mail. I was looking for an address and I knew of two people I could ask. The question was how many e-mails (asking for the address) to send: one or two?

We demonstrated that the more people queried, the lower the proportion of responses.
One e-mail addressed to both people is obviously the most efficient option in terms of both my time and the Net's bandwidth.

However, my intuition, and that of my co-author Eldad Yechiam, was that two individually addressed e-mails would be more effective. Our reasoning was that one e-mail addressed to both recipients could lead to a diffusion of responsibility where each recipient assumes that the other will respond. We couldn't resist testing the hypothesis empirically, and so these experiments were born.

It seems counterintuitive that the more people that are queried for help, the fewer respond. Were you surprised by your results?
We demonstrated that the more people queried, the lower the proportion of responses. While we were pleased with the clean results, we were not surprised. Social psychologists have been studying the diffusion of responsibility effect ever since Darley and Latane's influential studies that were motivated in part by the murder of Kitty Genovese in full view of 38 bystanders who did nothing to help. It seemed natural for us to assume that the effect could be generalized to e-mail requests.

Can you explain a little bit about social-cueing theory and how it applies to your research?
Latane and Darley explained their findings in terms of the bystander's cue value--the belief, conveyed by verbal or nonverbal communication, that others are capable of helping. Accordingly, if an e-mail sent through a discussion group is evaluated by its recipient as being sent to many individuals that are capable of responding, the diffusion of responsibility effect would imply a decreased tendency to respond.

Do you think there is a way to "unlearn" the diffusion of responsibility and, if so, could the change be implemented in service-based industries? On that note, have you found that there is a certain personality type that is more prone to answer online help requests sent to multiple e-mail addresses?
Economists model diffusion of responsibility as a "volunteer dilemma," for which the probability that a rational person will volunteer to produce a public good decreases with group size. The fundamental part of this dilemma is that the utility of not volunteering is higher than the utility of volunteering, assuming that someone else has volunteered.

The key to making the dilemma (and the diffusion of responsibility) disappear lies in increasing either the cost of not volunteering (i.e., of shirking) or the personal gain from choosing to respond. The easiest way to do this is simply to designate responsibility. In this context, it is interesting to note that responsibility literally means the ability to respond.

While we have not looked at specific personality types, we did find that requests sent under the female name, Judy Lamson, had a slightly, but significantly, higher response rate than requests sent under the male guise, George Lamson. This finding is consistent with Eagly and Crowley's metaanalysis on the effect of gender on helping behavior. Specifically, they found that people tend to help women more than men. Our study cannot conclusively support this result, since we examined only two senders' names.

In my own experience, when I have a computer-related problem, I often "CC" many people in a group, assuming that the more people I include, the quicker the response will be. Obviously, this is a mistake. How can groups such as IT help desks ensure that help requests have been answered?

The person who has the responsibility cannot afford not to respond.
The effect of additional addresses in the CC field on the recipient is an interesting empirical question that we have not looked at, but note that in terms of cue value, the CC field is very different from the "To" field. Almost by definition, recipients in the CC field are not expected to respond to the e-mail, so we would not expect a diffusion of responsibility to occur. As for customer service operations, it's all about designated responsibility. It must be crystal clear who has the responsibility to respond to a call, no matter how many copies of the call go out.

This is a good example of increasing the cost of not volunteering--especially for the one person whose job it is to respond. The person who has the responsibility cannot afford not to respond. Clearly, the cost here is in the context of professionalism and a good work ethic.

How can business managers incorporate your findings into their day-to-day operations?
Managers need to keep their e-mails personalized whenever possible. It's that simple. The idea that a personalized communication has a larger impact is supported by a large body of both psychology and marketing literature besides our own line of research. While this all sounds intuitive, I never cease receiving e-mails addressed to undisclosed lists. The fact that some of these e-mails are actual commercial offers suggests that potential profits are being lost by not following this intuitive guideline.

There is a bit of a technological barrier here. Most e-mail clients are simply not equipped to send out personalized e-mails based on a list. This is not surprising, since the need here, for the personal touch, is not technological but psychological. Paradoxically, we need e-mail clients that can do the job less efficiently from a technological perspective.

What are you working on now?
Broadly speaking, I am interested in both decision making and strategic interaction and in their application to managerial contexts. As for this particular line of research, I am looking at implicit signals of an e-mail's value. Value in this context might refer to the quality or importance of information in the e-mail or to the desirability of an e-mail offer.

In biology, and more recently in economics, the theory of honest signaling provides some possible insights. According to the theory, signals that are costly to produce and send provide a mechanism by which two parties can have reliable communication, despite conflicting interests (Zahavi's handicap principle). Examples include male peacocks that use costly ornaments to display quality to potential mates and baby birds that use costly begging calls to display hunger.

Eldad Yechiam and I think that there are analogous costly signals in e-mails that signal their quality and, as a result, increase our tendency to read and respond to their message. In the near future, we will be running an experiment that examines this hypothesis empirically.

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