How would Einstein use e-mail? Letter writers of yore had same correspondence patterns as e-mail users today

September 25, 2009

You're not as different from Albert Einstein and Charles Darwin after all, at least when it comes to patterns of correspondence.

A new Northwestern University study of human behavior has determined that those who wrote letters using pen and paper -- long before electronic mail existed -- did so in a pattern similar to the way people use e-mail today.

The study, published today by the journal Science, demonstrates the similarity of these two seemingly different activities, with the underlying pattern of human activity linking letters and e-mails.

The researchers examined extensive letter correspondence records of 16 famous writers, performers, politicians and scientists, including Einstein, Darwin, Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, and Ernest Hemingway, and found that the 16 individuals sent letters randomly but in cycles.

The same the Northwestern team used in a previous study to explain e-mail behavior now has been shown to apply to the letter writers. This refutes the rational model, which says that people are driven foremost by responding to others.

No matter what their profession, all the letter writers behaved the same way. They adhered to a circadian cycle; they tended to write a number of letters at one sitting, which is more efficient; and when they wrote had more to do with chance and circumstances than a rational approach of writing the most important letter first.

"We are interested in identifying and understanding patterns of , in learning how we make choices," said Luís Amaral, professor of chemical and biological engineering in the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science. Amaral led the research. "There are patterns to how we spend our days, and these models of probability, of how people allocate their time to do certain tasks, can be applied to many different areas."

"People are not that rational," added Amaral, who also is an Early Career Scientist with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. "If a doctor, for example, better understands how we make decisions, he or she may be able to get better compliance with a treatment if it is tied to something a person does with regularity."

The researchers studied correspondence that dated as far back as 1574 for philosopher Sir Francis Bacon and as recently, in the case of writer Carl Sandburg, as 1966. The letter data for the 16 individuals included a list of letters sent and, for each , the name of the sender, the name of the recipient and the date it was written.

More information: The title of the Science paper is "On Universality in Human Correspondence Activity." In addition to Amaral, other authors of the paper are R. Dean Malmgren, Daniel B. Stouffer and Andriana S. L. O. Campanharo.

Source: Northwestern University (news : web)

Explore further: Rational or Random? Model Shows How People Send E-Mails

Related Stories

Rational or Random? Model Shows How People Send E-Mails

November 19, 2008

In the last 10 years, e-mail has gone from a novelty to a necessity. What was once a pastime is now an essential form of communication, with many people opening their inboxes to find dozens of e-mails waiting.

Why C is not G: How we identify letters

November 25, 2008

The next time you are reading a book, or even as you read this article, consider the words that you are seeing. How do you recognize these words? Substantial research has shown that while reading, we recognize words by their ...

Could your initials influence where you choose to work?

October 23, 2008

One of the most important decisions that we can make is what company we will work for. There are a number of factors to consider when making this decision, including salary, benefits and work location. However, there may ...

New method ranks quality of scientific journals by field

February 27, 2008

Worldwide, the number of scientists is increasing as is the number of scientific journals and published papers, the latter two thanks in large part to the rise of electronic publishing. Scientists and other researchers are ...

Brands picked for narcissistic reasons

November 14, 2005

French researchers say we pick certain brand names for an entirely narcissistic reason: they contain letters of the alphabet that are in our own name.

Predicting politics: Professors model prediction markets

January 19, 2009

Political prediction markets -- in which participants buy and sell "contracts" based on who they think will win an election -- accurately predicted Barack Obama's 2008 victory. Now Northwestern University researchers have ...

Recommended for you

Metacognition training boosts gen chem exam scores

October 20, 2017

It's a lesson in scholastic humility: You waltz into an exam, confident that you've got a good enough grip on the class material to swing an 80 percent or so, maybe a 90 if some of the questions go your way.

Scientists see order in complex patterns of river deltas

October 19, 2017

River deltas, with their intricate networks of waterways, coastal barrier islands, wetlands and estuaries, often appear to have been formed by random processes, but scientists at the University of California, Irvine and other ...

Six degrees of separation: Why it is a small world after all

October 19, 2017

It's a small world after all - and now science has explained why. A study conducted by the University of Leicester and KU Leuven, Belgium, examined how small worlds emerge spontaneously in all kinds of networks, including ...

Ancient DNA offers new view on saber-toothed cats' past

October 19, 2017

Researchers who've analyzed the complete mitochondrial genomes from ancient samples representing two species of saber-toothed cats have a new take on the animals' history over the last 50,000 years. The data suggest that ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.