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Domo Arigato, Mr Human

In November 2020 the Financial Times published a story titled “Thanks for polluting the planet” in which they reported on British research claiming that the 64 million ‘unnecessary’ emails sent by Britons each day contribute significantly to climate change.

A BBC article also reporting on the issue (Climate change: Can sending fewer emails really save the planet?) questions the calculations of how much energy would really be saved, and whether such targeting of relatively small savings may detract from more worthy targets. But what goes unquestioned in this and many other reports on the story is the underlying assumption that saying thanks is somehow “useless”.

The research behind the claims was commissioned by Ovo Energy, a ‘Green’ British Energy Supplier with a published goal to become a zero carbon business by 2030. 

The research was carried out by survey consultants Censuswide and identifies the following as the top 10 most “unnecessary” emails:

Top 10 most ‘unnecessary’ emails sent:
1. Thank you6. Have a good evening
2. Thanks7. Did you get/see this?
3. Have a good weekend8. Cheers
4. Received9. You too
5. Appreciated10. LOL

Chart Source: Ovo Energy website .

I have to say, as a psychologist I ROFLMAO when I read that thanks and sharing a laugh are deemed not just unimportant, but wholly ‘unnecessary’ communications.

No information is given on the Ovo website linking to a full version of the report, nor is any indication given that the research was published in full or in part in a peer reviewed academic publication. Of course, we don’t always need peer review to tell us whether to trust a piece of research as long as we have adequate information about how it was conducted and what measures were used. What we are told about the research is that the information comes from a representative survey of 3,000 British people aged 16+, surveyed between the 14th and 17th of November 2019. We are also shown detailed working out for the carbon calculations and extrapolations, but we are given no information whatsoever on how the uselessness, pointlessness or otherwise uncessesariness of our communications is judged. What is the measure of uselessness in workplace communications? The short emails of thanks and well wishes are described as ‘unactionable’. Is this the same as pointless? I’m not convinced. Findings from positive psychology research suggest that saying thanks is important, for those both expressing and receiving it, as it strengthens interpersonal bonds, leads to increased productivity at work, and brings all sorts of benefits in terms of increased well being

Even if this evidence for the importance of saying thanks to personal relationships, well being and productivity were unavailable, it would still be a gross error to deem these ‘unactionable’ emails useless. Not knowing the point of something is not equivalent to knowing that it has no point. To assume so is to commit the logical error of confusing absence of proof for proof of absence. We should not assume something is unimportant or irrelevant simply because we lack evidence or understanding of why and how it is important or relevant. This is especially true when we are considering extremely complex systems. A recent example would be the discovery of one or two unknown genes of life-altering significance, lying hidden in what had previously been considered to be all junk dna.

Stopping large swathes of the email-using public from saying ‘thanks’, or ‘lol’, would be social engineering at a grand scale. This story is a good example of how researchers can over extrapolate beyond slim, questionable evidence, to give life-altering advice way beyond their competencies.

Of course, after eliminating thanks-yous, we could always just inject the humanity back into our workplace with corporate team-building exercises, but these costly outings may not really be a great substitute. Perhaps we are better leaving well enough alone.

As someone who focused her PhD research entirely on behavioural adaptations to mitigate climate change, I’m not reluctant to make sacrifices to my daily habits to help the environment. But, at the risk of setting the world on fire, thanks for reading.

Original artwork by Patricia Frazer- do not reproduce without permission. NFT soon available on


Author: Trish Frazer

Psychologist, lecturer

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