After interviewing several people about their relationship with email, Mark has noticed that, for some people, email is an extension of autonomy—it's about having control. One subject, she said, told her, “I let the sound of the bell and the popups rule my life.” Compulsively checking email or compulsively clearing out queues of unread emails, then, can be a form of regaining some of that control. “So I might refine your theory to say that those who feel compelled to check email may be more susceptible to feeling a loss of control [and] in missing out on information,” Mark said.
When someone drops everything just to get an unread count back to zero, productivity might be taking a hit. “It takes people on average about 25 minutes to reorient back to a task when they get interrupted,” she says. Yes, that includes even brief interruptions, like dashing off a quick response to an email, and it often takes so long to get back on task because the project you start doing after handling an email often isn’t the same as the one you were already doing. (These interruptions are so integral to modern workflows, Mark says, that when people lack external interruptions, such as a coworker striking up a conversation, they voluntarily interrupt themselves—sometimes by checking email.)
I happen to like Mark’s theory, but I also think there’s another urge that fuels the nagging feeling that comes with unread messages: Immediately reading and archiving incoming emails is just like checking a box on a to-do list and clearing out unread stories in an RSS feed. In other words, the appeal of these behaviors lies in the illusion of progress that they foster. Few tasks have a sense of conclusion as neat and immediate as archiving or deleting an email. For that reason, neurotically tidy people like me can't help but triage emails the moment they arrive.
There are, of course, other lenses through which to view these opposing email sensibilities. Jamie Madigan, a psychologist who writes about video games, thinks the arrival of a notification might be similar to the accrual of virtual loot. Email, in other words, might not be just a task, but a game. “Designers of apps for the Web, phones, and other devices figured this out early on,” he says. “In the case of our phones, we see, hear, or feel a notification alert show up, we open the app, and we are rewarded with something we like: a message from a friend, a like, an upvote, or whatever.” He guesses that people who don’t mind notification pileups don’t perceive as much of a reward from getting retweets or Facebook likes.
Ian Bogost, a professor of interactive computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology (and an Atlantic contributing editor), offers a similar theory. “What if actually there are people who care about technology as a part of their identity, and people who don’t?” He stressed that his potential explanation was untested, but I do think his point about self-identity might account for a portion of the difference.