Beating the cognitive load of email

Mark ZuckerbergMark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook (pictured), announced a new messaging system which many are calling a “Gmail Killer“. But in his press conference yesterday, Mr Zuckerberg was actually pointing out his system was not email, nor a replacement for it. Instead, he described his “aha” moment when talking to “young people” (he is 26). Apparently, young people do not like email because it has too much “cognitive load”.

Mr Zuckerberg described this as having to think about things like writing “Dear Mum” at the start of the email, followed by the usual “Love Mark” at the end. Call me old-fashioned, but I’m not sure that four words adds much cognitive load. The theory of cognitive load dates back over 20 years and stems from work on so-called “working memory” – the bit of our brain that copes with the information we are currently processing. The theory has been important in the development of educational materials, showing that we can help people learn using a step-by-step approach, enabling them to build up basic knowledge first. In essence, it is academic proof of common sense.

And common sense tells us that starting your message with thinking about who it is for, is actually a good thing. Equally, ending a message by considering how you will close – the parting shot – is also a good communications method. If Mr Zuckerberg ended his emails to his Mum with a simple “bye” or nothing at all, it might potentially lead to some friction.

In fact, one of the reasons why youngsters dislike email is not because the system is seen as slow – as Mr Zuckerberg implies – but because it is often used without any thought about the recipient. When we did not have email, but had to write letters we had to think about who we were writing to and had to consider how we would start and finish our letters. With email and automated signatures, for instance, we have been able to stop thinking. Young people, far from wanting to reduce the cognitive load, are actually sending a message to older users of email which essentially says “please think who you are talking to”.

So, Facebook’s answer to this appears to be a unified messaging system which will automatically recognise in what way a message should be dleivered. It is not email, as such, but will deliver any message format in the right way according to the recipient’s requirements. So I could send you a direct message on Twitter, but you would get it on Facebook, or in your email inbox. Facebook is intending to make it easy for us – thinking about how people want to recieve our messages is something else we won’t have to “worry about”.

And therein lies the problem. This solution is further reducing our need to think. Along with autoresponders saying we are out, when we are in, with automated signatures which say “Kind Regards, Mr Jones”, when the email is sent to your Mum and with the view that once you have sent a text message you have “communicated”, it is a further reduction in connecting your mind to the recipient. That is simply making matters worse.

What we have here is a classic “aim for the easiest route” scenario. Our brains want to reduce cognitive load; we want to do things the easiest way. So, when something comes along that makes it easy, we seek it out. The trouble is that the easiest way isn’t always the best way. So, if you do want to reduce cognitive load with email, the best way of doing this is not to seek an automated messaging system from the makers of Facebook. Instead, it is to think.

Pausing for just a few moments to think will actually reduce your cognitive load. Stopping to think reduces load because it forces you to dump everything else from your working memory, giving you greater capacity. Those youngsters Mr Zuckerberg complains about who find email difficult because of its cognitive load are merely trying to do too much with their brains (a common problem with young people anyway throughout centuries probably). Not only are they trying to email their Mum, but they are doing that while eating, reading their text book because they are late with an assignment and watching TV. If only they stopped all of those simultaneous thinking acts, they’d have more brain processing power.

So, the trick to ensuring your emails do work, that you do communicate well is not to try and reduce the cognitive load by adopting yet more automation. Instead it is to treat your recipients with respect – to stop, avoid distractions, think for a moment. That works out faster than any automated system because the resulting communication works and does not need repetition. It is tortoise and hare all over again.

So, do you need the new Facebook messaging system? Maybe, maybe not. But what is certain is that it will work better when you think about its appropriate use first.

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