A new study of human behavior discovers famous letter writers such as Albert Einstein and Charles Darwin communicated with letters in a similar pattern to how we use e-mail.

Northwestern University 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 writer’s followed a circadian rhythm maximizing efficiency by writing a number of letters at one setting. Timing of the correspondence had more to do with chance and circumstances than a rational approach of writing the most important letter first.

No matter what their profession, all the letter writers behaved the same way.

This finding suggests the same mathematical model used in a previous study to explain contemporary e-mail behavior also applies to the famous letter writers. The discovery refutes a rational model of human behavior, which says that people are driven foremost by responding to others.

“We are interested in identifying and understanding patterns of human behavior, in learning how we make choices,” said Luís Amaral, professor of chemical and biological engineering in the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science.

“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 letter, the name of the sender, the name of the recipient and the date it was written.

Source: Northwestern University