Email takes brainpower

By Kimberly Patch, Technology Research News

Should you send email or set up a face-to-face meeting? It's not a trivial question.

The two modes of communication are different in many ways, including how many words you use and how hard you have to think in order to come up with appropriate answers, according to a researcher from Temple University who has tapped the principles of evolution to explain why we communicate the way we do.

According to evolution theory, organs are optimized over many generations because the animals that benefit from random genetic changes to their organs are more likely to survive and pass on their genes. Another principle of evolution says that the body and the brain that guides it must evolve together.

Over the five or six million years that it took for us to evolve from small-brained primates into loquacious Homo Sapiens, we communicated face-to-face, said Ned Kock, a professor of information systems at Temple University. "Our biological communication apparatuses as well as our brains were optimized for face-to-face communication. When we move too far away from face-to-face communications... extra cognitive effort is required," he said.

This doesn't mean that face-to-face communications is always better than email, said Kock. But it does go a step toward toward quantifying why the two types of communication feel different. Taking into consideration our natural predilections in communications can also help us improve electronic communications, he said.

Kock studied the way 38 process-improvement groups in three organizations worked over a little more than four years as the groups used either face-to-face meetings or email to do their jobs.

The groups that communicated via email produced slightly better results, according to the perception of the participants. The cognitive effort required, however, was much greater because people are not as fluent in written language as they are in spoken language, said Kock.

Put simply, it is more difficult to write a paragraph then to speak one, especially if the ideas involved are complicated concepts or descriptions. This is easily illustrated by accounting for how much time it takes to write versus how much time it takes to speak. "Say you have a certain number of ideas and you need a certain number of words -- say 600 words -- to explain those ideas. If you used email, chances are that it's going to take you more than an hour to convey those 600 words. Over a face-to-face meeting you'll probably be able to convey the same number of words... over maybe five or ten minutes," said Kock.

The upshot is it can be more than an order of magnitude more difficult to communicate electronically versus face-to-face. "If you use words-per-minute as a surrogate of cognitive effort... it is between 10 and 20 times more time-consuming, more cognitively demanding to communicate over email the same number of ideas than it is to communicate face-to-face," said Kock.

The effect grows as the communication becomes more complicated. "If the communication is very simple... say I'm giving you my phone number... you won't see the decrease in fluency because the communication is not complex enough," he said.

So why did the groups that used e-mail to communicate about the complicated subject of process improvement produce not only acceptable but slightly better results?

The process improvement groups adapted to the differences, said Kock. While the groups that met face-to-face communicated in meetings that averaged two hours, the email groups spent the same amount of time per person communicating over 40 days. The email communications generated less than half the number of words per person, but those words were more focused, said Kock.

Part of the extra effort in composing written messages was also balanced out on the other end. It is more efficient to read email then to listen to speech, said Kock. "Reading emails is probably about two times faster than having to listen to contributions face-to-face because... you can jump from one part of a contribution to the other." Although the written nature of email also allowed the groups using that medium to reread contributions, they didn't tend to do so, said Kock.

The more focused contributions of email ultimately proved an advantage. "Online you do have the opportunity to prepare a focused and bigger type of contribution and therefore you can condense more information into one contribution than [you can] face-to-face. [The email] focused on the topic at hand... and therefore they used fewer words, and achieved better results by using fewer words," he said.

Although email was a workable solution in a business environment where employees were motivated to adapt, there are many situations like customer relations where the extra cognitive effort required may scuttle communications, Kock said. "If [an online] interaction requires more cognitive effort from the customer... they will be less satisfied with that communication or interaction and therefore the probability that they will move to another provider... will be higher," he said.

Another place where online communications has proven more difficult than first imagined is online learning. "The amount of cognitive effort and therefore the amount of time required for [online] instruction is much higher than face-to-face-like instruction... even if you factor in transportation-related time, et cetera. Nearly all faculty and students that I have talked to support this," Kock said.

Recognizing why electronic communications require more effort could go long way toward making electronic communications more natural, and therefore easier, he said.

Until the last hundred years or so our natural communications always involved colocation, or holding a conversation in the same physical space, and synchronicity, or talking in real-time. We also naturally use the tone of voice, facial expressions and body language to add information to our speech. Given these extra, contextual channels of information, our brains don't have to work so hard to extract what is meant from the words alone.

It is possible to add some of this natural context to certain types of electronic communications to make them faster and easier, Kock said. Using video clips in certain situations, for example, would add tone of voice, facial expressions and body language to electronic communications. Using chat-type communications would add synchronicity.

The research was carefully done, said Carrie Heeter, a professor of telecommunication at Michigan State University via San Francisco, and director of MSU's Virtual University. Although email is presumably a worse way to generate new collaborative ideas, it is probably a better way than face-to-face communications to mine the knowledge of each individual and group, Heeter said. One thing that may help asynchronous online discussions to be more natural is to encourage shorter posts, which are more like face-to-face conversations, she added.

Although in his paper on the research, Koch quotes a participant as saying that sometimes things are left hanging with email communications because people can have different interpretations of the same message, there may also be ambiguity in face-to-face communications, said Heeter. "I wonder, in face-to-face [communications], whether there is less perceived ambiguity, but in actuality perhaps even more disparate perceptions of what has been said. There is no recording of face-to-face [communications] other than each individual's memory. When I read minutes from a meeting I have attended, I'm often surprised," she said.

Kock is currently working on more finely quantifying the relative importance of natural contextual communications, he said.

He is also working with a psychologist to apply the research to a medical problem. Gradually increasing the naturalness of communications with other people can be used to people who have social anxiety, said Kock. This is needed because many current treatments for this type of illness, which brings on panic attacks in those who have it, involve desensitization, he said.

Kock published the research in the April, 2001 issue of Information Systems Journal. The research was funded by the Department of Defense (DOD) and the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Timeline:   Now
Funding:   Government
TRN Categories:   Computers and Society; Internet
Story Type:   News
Related Elements:  Technical paper, "Asynchronous and Distributed Process Improvement: the Role of Collaborative Technologies," Information Systems Journal, April 2001. "The Ape That Used Email: Understanding E-Communication Behavior through Evolution Theory," Communications of the Association for Information Systems (AIS), February, 2001.


October 17, 2001

Page One

Atom laser fits on a chip

Email takes brainpower

Teamed computers drive big display

Holograms control data beams

Pressure produces smaller circuits


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