Chain letters
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Chain Letters

    Chain letters are letters that direct the recipient to send out multiple copies so that circulation increases. These letters can be sent via the postal service or by e-mail. The distribution of chain letters through the postal service has neared extinction yet computers have extended the lifespan of this particular type of communication. How can a chain letter be identified? What can be attributed to their popularity? Will these letters continue to evolve?

Various information can be communicated through these letters. They may tell a joke, promise good fortune, threaten you with bad luck, or inform you of another's tragedy or misfortune. These letters often promise the recipients some type of reward if they pass the message on to others. When sent through e-mail, there is usually a long list of previous recipients, but no address or name to identify the original sender. This could possibly be a problem because there is no way to check the authenticity of the letter. Although it is possible for the information to have some truth, chain letters may also contain information that is completely false. Here's an example.

Each chain letter contains three distinct parts: hook, the threat, and the request. These parts can be identified in the preceding example. The hook is a catching phrase that grabs the interest of the readers and makes them want to continue reading. "THE DOCTORS HAVE GIVEN HER SIX MONTHS TO LIVE" is the hook in the Dying Girl. The thought of a seven year old girl dying would definitely catch the attention of the reader. The next component of the chain letter is the threat. The threat convinces the readers that if they don't pass the message on to others terrible things will happen. This chain letter threatens that the child will not have her dying wish fulfilled if the reader breaks the chain of this letter.


The request asks the reader to continue to pass the message on to others. This is supported by the reward of the donation to Cancer Research for every new person who receives the message.

Why do people send chain letters? There are several known reasons to explain the chain letters' popularity. One reason is that it is a great source for obtaining new e-mail addresses. These addresses may lead to new contacts. This tactic can be considered an example of the "free-rider effect". The "free-rider effect" involves depending on others to collectively complete a task. The original senders may, for some reason, decide that they need to obtain e-mail addresses. In order to find these addresses, the senders will initiate a chain letter and rely on the recipients to pass the letter to others. Each time the letter is sent to someone new, their address will be added to the list of recipients and the original senders will have obtained the addresses they wanted while exerting little effort. Some people send chain letters simply to see how far it will go or to harass another person. There may be times when someone decided that they want to damage a person's or organization's reputation. This is obviously the case with the Neiman-Marcus Cookie Recipe discussed in the Legend of and on the Internet section. Some people are out to get money, and may be successful, through pyramid schemes distributed through an e-mail chain. The "Make Money Fast" chain letter is an example of a pyramid scheme. Any chain letter that asks for money is illegal.

Many times these chain letters make promises to the recipient in exchange of sending the message to other people. The recipients may adhere to the senders' request because they believe that sending the message to others will contribute to their good luck. "This belief is an example of self-fulfilling prophecy. Self-fulfilling prophecy is when an originally false social belief leads to its own fulfillment." (1996) When a self-fulfilling prophecy occurs, the perceiver's initially false beliefs cause targets to act in ways that objectively confirm those beliefs.

There is no question that chain letters can be entertaining. Once a person responds to a chain letter they may begin receive them regularly. This happens because people usually send the letters to those who usually respond and react. The senders get no satisfaction from people who simply delete the message after realizing it is a chain letter. Some people get frustrated because of the numerous chain letters and decide to end them by submitting a new one. This new letter may contain some type of threat or punishment. The action of creating a new chain letter with a threat or punishment is a form of coercive power. Coercive power is defined by Hewstone, Stroebe, and Stephenson as "the use of threats and punishments in pursuit of social power."

Chain letters sometimes tell a story about a helpless person who desperately needs something. The "Dying Girl" chain letter given previously is an example of this. The reader may be compelled to relay the message to others because he/she experiences empathy for the character in the message. Empathy is the affective state that corresponds to the witnessing of the emotional state of another person. This may result from taking the perspective of others and comprehending their emotions.

Today's computer chain letter has begun to transform into a simpler and less structured known as the e-mail forward. These forwards are very similar to the chain letter when comparing the frequency and potential range of individuals to whom they may be spread, but they may not contain the three components. Forwards don't necessarily have to request that they be sent to others but may simply be passed on simply because the reader finds it interesting, entertaining or amusing. Here is an example, titled "How old are you?" Although these e-mail forwards lack the request to send to others, they are passed on as frequently as chain letters and prove to be the next step in the transmission of Internet folklore. Follow this link to see some examples of e-mail forwards and this one to read examples of Internet chain letters.

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This document was last changed, updated, modified, and/or tweaked Tuesday, March 11, 2014 at 17:34:39 and has been accessed 1 times since 5/1/98.
This project was produced for Psy380, Social Psychology of Cyberspace, Spring 1998, at Miami University. Send comments and suggestions to: