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Mass Emails and Mass Apathy

The power of crowds, virtually speaking.

I’m not a bad person, I swear. I’m just busy, like most people. And like most people, give me an easy way out of adding to my to-do list, and I’ll take it.

So don’t judge me for my apathy in the face of the following mass email that popped into my inbox, sent by a well-intentioned administrator in my department:

Dear Faculty,

This student (see attached message) was hoping someone could help her with advice regarding a summer internship. Do you have any ideas or recommendations for her?


Well-Intentioned Department Administrator

It took me all of 5 seconds to file this message under “D” for Delete.

Why? Because, like I said, I’m busy. Because I don’t know the student in question. Because I’m well aware that any one of the other 17 members of my department can answer her questions as well as I can. And because I know there will be no serious consequences to my inaction. To be brutally honest, there are plenty of minor costs to my getting involved in this exchange, with few tangible benefits to outweigh them.

Of course, I’d feel very differently if the student had contacted me directly. Or if our administrator had forwarded the email to me individually, with some explanation for why I’d be the ideal person to respond. In those cases, I’d seem (and feel) like a jerk if I didn’t send a reply, even if only to say, sorry, I don’t have any suggestions.

Being in a crowd permits inaction. Even when that crowd is a virtual one. A crowd works like a release valve on the pressure to help. A direct email request would have placed 100% of this pressure squarely on me, making failure to respond an uncomfortable course of action (although, sure, we all have some co-workers apparently impervious to such discomfort, not to mention friends who never mind letting others pick up the check).

A mass email request, however, spreads out that sense of responsibility, distributing evenly across 18 of us the pressure to respond. Shrugging off 5% of the responsibility is easy. And my guess is that each one of my colleagues did the same thing I did, leaving this student with no choice but to go it alone or contact someone directly.

In other words, crowds allow us the luxury of shirking obligation. A century ago, an engineer named Max Ringelmann discovered this when he had groups ranging from 1-8 people pull together on a rope. Though the total force exerted increased as groups got bigger, the per-person average decreased in larger teams.

So one person pulling alone generated 63 kilograms of force. A group of 3 produced 160 kilograms, translating to just 53 per person. A group of 8 produced 248 kilograms of force, or only 31 per individual rope-puller.

In short, 8 people didn’t come close to exerting 8 times the force on the rope that 1 person did alone. And it wasn’t that they were getting in each other’s way: even when all the other members of a group were actors just pretending to pull, individual participants still gave less effort when they were part of a team.

This is the same social loafing exhibited by the deleter of mass email requests. By the project team member who never steps up to take the lead. Or the student who greets non-rhetorical questions during class with silence—and, sometimes, the charade of flipping through notebook pages, pretending to look carefully for the answer but really just avoiding eye contact until the teacher calls on someone else. (Yes, your teachers realize that’s what you’re doing; we used to do that when we were students, too.)

Responsibility diffuses in groups. Chemists talk about diffusion in terms of molecules spreading from areas of high concentration to low concentration. Well, the same thing happens to feelings of obligation and responsibility in a crowd, whether you’re rubbing shoulders with literal or virtual others–a lesson worth bearing in mind next time you get ready to hit 'send' on that mass email request.


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