Circadian writing

The hook for this article write-up—that patterns of email-writing are similar to older patterns of letter-writing—somehow seems less surprising than they make it out to be. The original Science study on which it is based is humbly titled “On Universality in Human Correspondence Activity.” Um, how exactly does showing that literate people in Western culture today correspond like famous literate people in Western culture did a few decades or centuries ago tell us that much about “Universality”? If the communiques of Tang Dynasty scholars, Inca string-knotters, and Roman emperors were all shown to look like my outbox, then I’d be a bit more universally impressed.

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 mathematical model 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.

Originally published at

Add Your Comments