Hooked on casual information: confessions of a survey addict

Addiction to e-mails may be serious, as a new study shows, but in a world packed full of forgettable facts, surveys are also a hard habit to break

Cartoon%20010307Marsha Egan sounds as though she may be one of those earnest Americans forever in search of the wherefore. There have been many of her kind, most notably Gertrude Stein who on her death-bed famously asked, "What is the answer?", and then, when no response was forthcoming, "What is the question?"

Miss Egan’s chosen profession is life coach, which suggests she has some of the answers. The first being that if you are going to be a life coach you might as well cater for people who can pay the bills. She is, therefore, a life coach for business executives. It’s the kind of job, one suspects, in which solutions are in search of problems. Lucky for her, then, that she has unearthed a peach of a problem – e-mail addiction.

The sufferers, she explains, are people who are obsessed by reading or replying to e-mails on holiday, in the car and even in the bathroom, which is American for on the loo. She cites three extreme cases: the golfer who checked his Blackberry after every shot and lost a potential client who jumped to the conclusion that he was a "socially inept obsessive"; the woman who could not walk past a computer, hers or anyone else’s, without checking for messages; and the man who had 3,600 e-mails in his inbox. Some victims wait anxiously for e-mails and, if none arrive after a few minutes, send one to themselves.

For these and others like them Miss Egan has launched a recovery course along the lines of the 12-step programme for alcoholics. Picture the scene: in a mission hall somewhere in New Jersey a group of men and women with anxious eyes and haunted expressions sit in a circle. One rises to his feet and in a steady voice says, "My name is Hyram C Clambake the Third and I am an e-mail addict and… pardon me, hold on a moment, I think I’ve got something in my inbox."

That is not, of course, at all funny. Addiction never is. I speak as a fellow sufferer, though of a different kind. I am hooked on surveys. In fact, I am quite excited because I have just spotted one in the news item featuring the ever-resourceful Marsha Egan. It says a survey by King’s College London claims e-mail addiction is doubly worrying because it depletes cognitive abilities more rapidly than drugs. Not only are e-mail users afflicted by an alarming degree of lethargy, but they also suffer a ten per cent drop in IQ, more than twice the fall recorded by marijuana users.

We survey addicts have entirely different symptoms. We are apt to roll our eyes in wild surmise, our brains a ferment of unanswered questions. For instance, if an e-mail user’s IQ drops by ten per cent, what happened to the man with 3,600 e-mails in his inbox? Did his IQ fall to something like -35,000? And is that not a notable achievement of some sort?

The great attraction of surveys is the comfort we draw from them in an age when knowledge threatens to engulf us all. There is simply too much of it. But unlike real knowledge – that air rises when it is warm, the value of pi, the use of the vocative case – survey knowledge is synthetic and undemanding. It is knowledge-lite or decaf knowledge. it is not there to be learned. It is there to be forgotten.

Item/ A survey of 23,000 matches by two dating agencies says men believe that female journalists have the perfect potential as mates because they are "quick thinking and intelligent"and care about the human condition.

Item: An online survey by MTV has found that one-third of young people think that English size 10 (American size six) is the perfect body size.

Item: A survey reveals that one in three women thinks vigorous exercise, visiting the bathroom or washing after sex will stop her getting pregnant.

Item: A survey by the Royal Economic Society claims that single working women spend an average of ten hours a week on housework while single men spend only seven hours.

Item: A survey conducted jointly by a road safety charity and car breakdown service shows that most drivers are unaware that risk-taking men pose the greatest hazard.

Item: A survey reveals that about 2,000 people a year go as far as complaining to councils about annoying external noise that turned out to be inside their heads.

Believe me, this stuff is extremely addictive. Survey junkies such as myself will ponder for hours: do one in three female newsreaders, the caring sort, believe that vigorous exercise after sex will halt conception? Or is that just an irritating noise in their heads?

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