April 20, 2004

Getting Help Via E-mail Without Being Ignored

"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?" Wrong, per this intriguing CNET News article, in which researchers explored the effect known as "diffusion of responsibility".

In essence, sending "[...] 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 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."

In my humble opinion, there's a flip side to their theorizing: What if one or both people you send the e-mail to are not available, not checking their e-mail, and you have an urgent request? Then your request could sit for hours or days unanswered, especially if the recipients forgot to turn on their auto-responder. For formally organized support organizations or departments, sometimes sending the e-mail to "HelpDesk" actually helps in that it gets noticed and routed in the normal course. Conversely, bypassing the system can backfire, and I've seen it happen on numerous occasions.

Of course, we've all seen our e-mail go into the tech support black hole, never to be seen again. To which I think a hybrid approach may be beneficial: E-mail tech support through the normal channels, and if it is sufficiently urgent, send separate messages to your select "go to" people indicating that you've sent it through normal channels but would appreciate it if they'd oversee that it was handled timely. I also see these types of requests as Monopoly "Get out of jail free" cards: You only get a few, so save them for when you really need them. No one wants to respond to someone who regularly asks everyone to drop everything just for them. Also, making the e-mail more personalized may increase the chances for a response.

The article also talks about addressing this group behavior by designating responsibility and rewarding responsive behavior. A particularly interesting tidbit was that "[...] requests sent under a female name had a slightly, but significantly, higher response rate than requests sent under the male guise [...] 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."

Hmm -- sounds like I might need to come up with a good feminine pseudonym for the big crunches. After watching Phoebe on "Friends" change her name, I know it definitely won't be Princess Consuela Banana-Hammock. ;^)

Topic(s):   Other Musings
Posted by Jeff Beard