V. Krishna Kumar, PhD
E-mail, a truly great invention, is increasingly replacing paper mail for most purposes. We regularly receive e-mails in more than one e-mail account from banks, various doctors’ clinics, automobile dealers (a price you pay for bargain shopping), automobile associations, travel agencies, hotels where you stayed, retailers, newsletters, newspapers, periodicals, online professional journals (some claim to publish fast), professional associations (invitations to be a keynote speaker at conferences from societies abroad unrelated to my field), book publishers, colleagues, students, friends, family members, various notifications (lottery wins, your memory is full, threats to “lock down” e-mail because of “negative complaints”; can complaints ever be positive?), business proposals, and personal hookup invitations (no, not from Ashley Madison’s website)! We may also use e-mails for storing articles in progress, students’ theses in progress, homework assignments, and course syllabi for ready references as e-mail attachments.
Occasionally, old lost friends find my e-mail address and after the first somewhat personal letter begin communicating regularly by sending mostly forwarded e-mails of various types, including the type “God is great and if you do not forward this e-mail to 4 people in the next 24 hours something bad will happen” (yes, my sincere thanks to these folks for watching over me). Some close friends insist on copying their e-mails to more than one email account, so I have to look at them twice. Reply e-mails become longer and longer over repeated replies from multiple people, especially on listservs, and if you print them you might have a veritable book of replies on a particular issue (more than likely on a non-issue).
Many people have written articles arguing for the possibility that addiction to the Internet is widespread. Here, I suggest a subset of Internet addiction disorders: e-mail related disorders—compulsive checking, responding, and hoarding. A person could have all three or just one, inasmuch as a person may check but not respond or store messages compulsively. Compulsive checkers are also likely to receive e-mails on their smartphones; for them each ping is simply irresistible. Some individuals are “fast responders” (respond within few minutes of reading). Among the fast ones, some have the need to be “first responders “(i.e., they must be the first to make a point; such people are on a continuous schedule for checking their e-mails). Then there are “delayed responders” (not necessarily more thoughtful) and “purpose-based responders” (i.e., respond only if it serves a purpose or their own purpose; probably best not to expect to hear from them).
A more serious problem with some of us (that includes me) is an obsessive reluctance to click on the handy delete icon even when you know that storing a particular e-mail will likely serve no future purpose, resulting in your having to deal with thousands of e-mails stored in your inbox and subfolders on a daily basis. This is living on e-mail edge behavior defined as deleting or archiving a few e-mails to receive a few new e-mails, a risk-taking behavior of sorts but not quite the thrill-seeking behavior that Frank Farley talks about. This is a familiar OCD type behavior—it has not yet been made into a TV series, but I see potential for it. If you have saved continuing education workshop announcements way past their due dates and saved all responses to the Hoffman report, including those that say “I agree with what Frank said,” then you may have the e-mail hoarding disorder. The disorder may be more severe when one saves every selfie forwarded to family and friends—this may also qualify the person for a diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder.
So what is the etiology for e-mail hoarding tendency? Of course, you know the Freudian explanation of hoarding behaviors—it does not require much elaboration. Per humanistic-existential psychology, all sent/received e-mails carry some meaning and you cannot just throw something away that has personal meaning for you. Instrumental learning explanations are also relevant. Ostensibly, the hoarding behavior had been reinforced several times, possibly on a variable-reinforcement schedule, as in the past when saved e-mails written by colleagues helped you to prove a point back to them or others. A CBT therapist might argue that the dysfunctional behavior results from regarding all e-mails as extremely important—a type of all-or-none thinking, an inability to think in terms of (fifty?) shades of grey. Also, the uncontrollable worry generated by deleting potentially important e-mails may reflect catastrophizing.
How can these putative e-mail disorders be treated? Mindfulness training might help; various forms of therapy to obtain insight into the disorders with action plans might help, but possibly, putting the person on a reality TV show with a tough-love IT coach to learn e-mail management skills might work the best.