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So many a year ago a bunch of psychologists were doing experiments on operant learning in animals. At one point they performed the following experiment: The basic setup is a rat or bird in a cage. Sticking out of one of the walls is a lever. Now, in some versions of the experiment, the lever causes food to be released every time it's pressed. The second version of the experiment involves releasing food every X number of presses, where X is some number bigger than one. The final version involves giving the food out at random intervals so that essentially the lever pressing actually has no correlation with the food being given. In each case the animal learnt relatively quickly that pressing the lever correlated somehow with food. the interesting part comes when the experimenters turned the food off, so that pressing the lever had no effect. The first group, that received food every lever press, tried pressing for a short while and then gave up when no food was forthcoming. The second group persisted for a bit longer, but also gave up eventually. But the last group continued pressing the lever forever, always hoping that maybe this time the food would come out.

And this, my friends, is the model of email and online community checking that many people follow. A new message could arrive at any moment, thus even during periods when the rate of emails slows down we can't help checking regularly 'just in case'. It's all very insidious, and makes me think of just how much money is being made by those advertisers that advertise in email and online communities. Quite a lot, judging by the way that most people I know follow this operant behaviour.
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