Ask Ariely: On Erasing Email and Placebo Performance

Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week  and if you have any questions for me, you can tweet them to @danariely with the hashtag #askariely, post a comment on my Ask Ariely Facebook page, or email them to AskAriely@wsj.com.

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Dear Dan,

Recently, the German auto maker Daimler gave employees the option of automatically deleting all emails that arrive while they’re on vacation. Senders get a note suggesting that they resend their email later or write to other colleagues who are still in the office. This way, employees don’t have to face overflowing inboxes when they return. Is this a good idea?

—Kathleen

Not having to worry about email while you’re on vacation sounds wonderful, and this policy will probably boost employees’ well-being—though, of course, some will still wonder what they might have missed.

That said, the Daimler approach seems pretty extreme, and it deals with the symptoms rather than the root problem. In my experience, email stresses people out constantly, not just during vacations. We get too much email every day of the year; we spend too much time responding to it and worrying about it. Email correspondence in many corporations is so out of hand that it leaves almost no time for any actual work.

If the bosses at Daimler really care about their employees’ welfare, why not tackle the inefficiencies of this communication channel—and work to reduce their overall email load? How about announcing that no email is allowed between 9 and 11 a.m. and again between 1 and 3 p.m.? Or what if they limited people to just 10 emails a day? (Does anyone really have more than 10 important things to say in a day?)

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Dear Dan,

I’ve read a lot about the placebo effect. Does that mean it won’t work on me?

—Marco

It turns out that placebos operate to some degree outside of our awareness—which means that even when we know a particular medication is a placebo, we can still benefit from it. So don’t worry about knowing too much. Just take two placebos and call me in the morning.

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See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.