Prioritizing unread e-mails: people send urgent responses before important or short ones

Anna L. Cox, Jon Bird, Duncan P. Brumby, Marta E. Cecchinato, Sandy J. J. Gould

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People are overwhelmed by the volume of email that they receive. To ensure their emails are read, senders sometimes use explicit inbox-level cues in an attempt to garner the receiver’s attention. We report the results of a field experiment that investigates whether and how such cues influence recipients’ email processing behavior. Forty-five participants were sent 360 emails each over a three-week period. Inbox-level cues were given to indicate: (1) the urgency of responding, (2) the time that would be required to work on a response, (3) the importance of responding, (4) and the salience of that importance. Results show that email prioritization is influenced by an interaction between these cues. When emails were not time-sensitive, participants sensibly prioritized responses to messages that were most important and required the least effort to respond to. This rational triaging strategy faltered when emails required a time-sensitive response; urgent messages were responded to quickly regardless of other cues. The results are discussed with reference to Kahneman's dual-process theory of judgment and decision making.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages24
JournalHuman-Computer Interaction
Early online date23 Nov 2020
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 23 Nov 2020


  • decision-making
  • e-mail
  • inbox management
  • prioritization
  • time pressure


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