I'll set the scene...

You return to the office after a satisfying lunch, sluggishly move the mouse to break the hypnotic effect of the screen saver, and come face-to-face with a far too full email inbox. Like a skilled field medic you start the triage process.

An exclamation point catches your eye but the email is quickly discarded after it is decided that while it may be important to someone, that someone is not you. Next, you scan the list of names but there is none from your wife and only one from your boss, he has a daughter selling girl scout cookies. Then you just move email to email, responding to those that directly address yourself while moving quickly past the ones that seem to go to everyone. Finally, with the task complete, you head down the hall to order some tag-a-longs.

In a time when emails number the stars, prioritization is key. You need to know what has to be answered now, what can wait for later, and what can just be discarded. Personally, bulk emails almost always fall to the bottom of the list, but why is that?

For anyone who has ever taken an intro psych or social psych class the concept of the "Bystander Effect" is probably at least somewhat familiar. The basic premise is that as the number of observers witnessing an emergency goes up the less likely it is that the observers will help the person in distress.

I think it is possible to witness the same type of situation, albeit less traumatic, by examining your email inbox.

Last week a coworker of mine sent an email to everyone in the department asking for advice. Several days later I asked the coworker about the response she received to find that no one responded I work in a department that is filled with helpful people. When asking a question in person it is not unusual for the coworker to stop what they are doing to respond and help you out but that did not happen here.

This is an example of what I would say is the email bystander effect.

Here is an easy, try at home, experiment. In no set order you will need to send out two different emails that require responses. In one, send out an email to a group of contacts all at once. For the other email, send one email but this time do it one person at a time.

What you will probably find is that you will receive a larger proportion of responses from the individual emails than you would from the bulk email. Supporting the notion of an email bystander effect.

Ultimately, the lesson from this is simple: if you want to increase the response rate, personalize the emails.