Why People “Reply to All” on Emails Mistakenly Send to the Whole Organization

People make mistakes. That is only human. Other people have the habit of correcting these mistakes, even when they are no more knowledgeable about these subjects. But that is only human as well. How can you recognize this ignorance? Here are four tips that may help you and you will also learn why people keep sending replies to all when emails are mistakenly send to the whole organization.

Golden Behaviors

– Nudges for a Healthy Lifestyle –

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Every once in a while I receive an e-mail addressed to the whole organization. On rare occasions it is an e-mail that is addressed to the whole organization by mistake. The apologies are usually send to the whole organization in minutes, but the conversation usually lasts for a couple of days. Many people from the organization feel the urge to share their good advice with the whole organization by using the Reply All functionality.

Some of this advice includes an appeal of not sending a reply to all (but obviously ignoring this advice themselves), which is usually followed by a couple of people agreeing with this advice (also ignoring this advice themselves). In my last experience with such an email one person even inadvertently attempted to keep the conversion going by asking “How do I stop this nice trail of emails?” The solution is obvious: stop sending replies to all! Apparently many people think they know this and others do not, so they send their reply to all to share this knowledge with the rest of us. But why do so many people think they know more than others?

Dunning-Kruger effect

People think they know more than others, because of a curious effect named the Dunning-Kruger effect: people with lower skill levels overestimate their abilities, while highly skilled people often underestimate their abilities. The effect is named after the two social psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger, who first described it.

In one study, Dunning and Kruger asked people to estimate how funny different jokes were. Some participants were exceptionally poor at determining what other people would find funny—yet these subjects described themselves as excellent judges of humor. Competent people estimated that they were better than 72% of other people when in fact they were better than 88%. Incompetent people thought they were better than 58% of other people, when in fact they were only better than 12%. So, humorous people generally underestimate their sense of humor, whereas less humorous people overestimate their sense of humor.

In another study, Dunning and Kruger asked people to estimate how good they were at logical reasoning. Some participants were exceptionally poor at logical reasoning, but described themselves as excellent at it. Competent people estimated that they were better than 70% of other people when in fact they were better than 84%. Incompetent people thought they were better than 64% of other people, when in fact they were only better than 11%. So, people with great logical skills generally underestimate their ability in logical reasoning, whereas less able people overestimate their ability.

Why the Dunning-Kruger effect happens

Essentially, low-ability people do not possess the skills needed to recognize their own incompetence. Robert McIntosh and his colleagues argue that it is the combination of poor self-awareness and low cognitive ability that leads them to overestimate their capabilities. This leads to four stages depending on people’s experience (see the figure below). In the first stage people are a novice, they have no knowledge of a topic, their competence of this topic is zero, as is their confidence. In the second stage, confidence grows substantially with only a small increase in experience. Since the increase in experience is so minimal in comparison to their new level of confidence, people are on what is called Mount Stupid. However, it doesn’t stop these people from having the loudest voice. In the third stage, people go through the Valley of Despair. The more people learn about a subject, the more they are able to see just how complicated it really is. Finally, people arrive at the Slope of Enlightenment: confidence begins to grow when people gain mastery of a subject. However, they never reach the same level of confidence as on Mount Stupid.

Why people “reply to all” on emails mistakenly send to the whole organization

People do this because they are on top of Mount Stupid and think they know the solution were others do not. They are confident that sending the solution to everyone will help other people in the organization recognize that the email was not intended for them. It would have sufficed to only notify the original sender.

Some people in the organization are in the Valley of Despair. The email asking “How do I stop this nice trail of emails?” might belong to this category. People in this stage may send a reply to the original sender only, not recognizing original senders already knows about their mistake.

Luckily, most people are on the Slope of Enlightenment. They know that the best thing to do is just erase the initial e-mail and wait until all subsequent replies die out. They also know they do not even have to inform the original sender. The enormous number of out-of-the-office emails has notified the original senders of their mistake, long before anyone has the chance to send a reply.

Are you affected by the Dunning-Kruger effect?

You may not be the person who replies to all on emails mistakenly send to everyone. However, according to Dunning and Kruger, everyone is prone to this effect. This is because no matter how informed or experienced you are, you also have topics in which you are uninformed and incompetent. You might be smart and skilled in many areas, but no one is an expert at everything.

Thus, you are also affected by this effect, and probably more often then you think. People who are genuine experts in one area may mistakenly believe that their intelligence and knowledge carry over into other areas in which they are less familiar. I have been playing squash for a long time, but that does not make me an expert at padel, which may superficially look like it requires the same knowledge.

Strategies for improving well-being

The Dunning-Kruger effect can be detrimental to our well-being. It can lead poor performers into careers for which they are unfit, which is both detrimental for the poor performers as well as the company. So it is in all our interest to minimize this effect. So what can you do to gain a more realistic assessment of your abilities?

  1. The most obvious is to keep learning and practicing. The more you expand your experience, the more realistic your assessment of your abilities become. You may also realize how much there still is to learn.
  2. Furthermore, ask other people for feedback. For people on Mount Stupid, we should provide feedback frequently, preach humbleness to these people, and pray that their confidence will become more aligned with their expertise. You can also apply this to yourself. Ask for for constructive criticism frequently and show humbleness yourself. This may provide you with valuable insights into how others perceive your abilities.
  3. Most difficult may be to question what you know. Even as you learn more and get feedback, it can be easy to only pay attention to things that confirm what you think you already know. This is an example of confirmation bias. In order to minimize this tendency, keep challenging your beliefs and expectations. Seek out information that challenges your ideas.
  4. If you are climbing the Slope of Enlightenment, you may want to improve your communication with the public. Most experts are too humble for the level of expertise they have. They realize there are many things they do not know, but often fail to realize that they have more expertise than others. It would be helpful if these experts educate the rest of us on the complexity of the subject.

Your efforts of getting a more realistic assessment of your abilities will also contribute to my personal well-being, because I will receive less replies to all on emails that are mistakenly send to the whole organization. Thank you in advance.

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Niels Vink (1975) is author of Golden Behaviors and behavioral designer. He uses insights from the behavioral sciences to explain why people often act against their own interests. As a behavioral expert, he explores how you can nudge your behavior for a healthy lifestyle. He has Master degrees in Social Psychology (Leiden University) and Industrial Design Engineering (Delft University of Technology) and holds a PhD in Consumer Behavior.

When you have been inspired to start and maintain your Golden Behaviors, reach out to me.

Source of top image: Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash


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