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Emailed Threats Less Crazy Than Snail Mail 113

Posted by CowboyNeal
from the well-on-the-whole-at-least dept.
SoyChemist writes "Psychologists at the University of Nebraska have read 300 threatening letters and 99 angry emails to members of Congress. They concluded that the authors of the electronic messages show less signs of serious mental illness, but they are more profane and disorganized. The report was published in the September issue of the Journal of Forensic Sciences."
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Emailed Threats Less Crazy Than Snail Mail

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  • Duh (Score:5, Insightful)

    by iamacat (583406) on Saturday November 03, 2007 @12:06PM (#21224139)
    Opening and using an e-mail account requires some amount of sanity, but very little social skills.
    • by bombastinator (812664) on Saturday November 03, 2007 @12:36PM (#21224357)
      The same could be said for mailing a letter. I suspect the cause may lean more towards simplicity and availability.

      To sit down, find an envelope, and actually put 35 cents on the thing requires more forethought and commitment than firing off an email. It also takes at least several minutes to do, so there will be a bit more composition of thought than in an email.

      Email can be a much more heat of the moment thing, as evidenced frequently by this forum. I guarantee that if replying to this thread, or even this forum required me to mail an envelope it would not have happened.
      • by CheeseTroll (696413) on Saturday November 03, 2007 @12:50PM (#21224469)
        There's an interesting concept. Recreate a forum like Slashdot by using only snail-mail. Every day, members would receive a packet in the mail with the latest updates, and it would be up to each person to cross-reference the posts to recreate the threads. How many users would waste a stamp to send in a "First Post!" response?
        • Most print magazines have letters pages with ongoing discussions therein.
          Its not uncommon to see discussion threads weeks/months after an original article appears.
          The main difference however is the amount of filtering due to space constraints.

          The point is, its not uncommon.
        • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

          by Anonymous Coward
          I can see it now...

          Goatse trolling -- scratch-and-sniff style!
      • by khasim (1285) <brandioch.conner@gmail.com> on Saturday November 03, 2007 @01:01PM (#21224557)
        Not to mention that if you're sending a threat it would be best to do it in a way that cannot be so easily traced back to you.

        Dropping off a letter in a different city is an easier method than anon proxies for most people.
      • duh indeed (Score:1, Funny)

        by Anonymous Coward
        To sit down, find an envelope, and actually put 35 cents on the thing requires more forethought and commitment than firing off an email. And the more sane ones know to use a 41 cent stamp.
      • by pluther (647209) <pluther@@@usa...net> on Saturday November 03, 2007 @01:16PM (#21224633) Homepage
        ... put 35 cents on the thing requires more forethought and commitment than firing off an email. It also takes at least several minutes to do

        To say nothing of the time it would take them to look up current postal rates...

        • by dryueh (531302)
          Yes --- I was going to comment that Congress is, thank god, safe from all the 35-cent crazies out there. (on an unrelated note, I find myself unable to think of stamps as costing more than 29 cents)
        • by Dare nMc (468959)

          look up current postal rates...

          if they were threatening over half of congress, then renting a machine, and getting the bulk rate, on a post card, could get the price below a $.20
      • by krazytekn0 (1069802) on Saturday November 03, 2007 @01:31PM (#21224737) Homepage Journal
        When I first read this I thought to myself "I wonder how much time people will waste to point out the current postal rate..." then I saw, there were already at least 5 corrections to your postage rate. We have to assume that each of those took at least 30 seconds to 1 minute to click "Reply to This" type in their response, post, wait for the preview, click ok. Anyway, I'm assuming that most /.ers have jobs and those all have to pay at least $14.00/hr on average which is about 23 cents/minute (gross) and we've already wasted at least 2.5 minutes here, (I don't have a job other than my son and he's sleeping right now) so that's about 57.5 cents in order to correct a 6 cent mistake. This is why they don't let IT guys do budgeting.
        • It's Caturday. The average /.'er works a Mon-Fri job and only goes in on weekends if it's an emergency.
          • AAh, yes that would be an indication of my lessening involvement with the workplace. After becoming a parent, you forget that you used to have time to do whatever you wanted, it's one of God's great mercies that you can't recall thinking things like "What should I do with the next two days that I have to myself", or "Maybe I should get out of bed since it's 11:00" Sorry, I will try to keep weekends in my calculations from now on.
        • Maybe I'm being anal here, but it's actually a $.35 mistake, because you will get the letter back stamped for insufficient postage, and will have to put a new stamp on another envelope to resend it. In fact, $.35 plus the cost of an envelope. So not as bad as you make it out to be.
          • Every time I use the wrong postage (which has been about 10 times since the rate went to $.41 my post office doesn't cancel the stamp that I put on to begin with, so I put a $.02 stamp on next to it and stick it back in the box. That said, the hoorah was all about what someone wrote, he didn't mail anything so it's still only a semantic mistake valued at $.06. I'll teach this thread to be a dead horse *beats*
      • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

        by fatalfury (934087)
        35 cents? Get thee to a post office! It costs 41 cents to mail a complaint to Congress! That can really add up over time; no wonder only the mentally ill use snail mail.
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      Opening and using an e-mail account requires some amount of sanity,


      Sanity and functioning aren't the same thing. You can be completely insane, but wholly functional. Think Adolph Hitler -- he might have been totally nuts, but if he were living today I doubt very much he'd have any trouble opening or using an e-mail account.
       
      • Re: (Score:1, Troll)

        by Jarjarthejedi (996957)
        "Think Adolph Hitler -- he might have been totally nuts"

        First, nice Godwin :P.

        Second...unlikely, I don't think any historians really think Hitler was completely insane, perhaps a small deviation from the norm, but it's quite difficult for a truly insane person to convince others to follow them. How many people in the loony bins were even decent leaders before getting there? Probably very few, course I'm neither a historian nor a psychologist so that's just my basic knowledge.
      • Think Adolph Hitler -- he might have been totally nuts, but if he were living today I doubt very much he'd have any trouble opening or using an e-mail account.
        True. Of course, using an Xbox 360 [youtube.com] is a different story...
      • ...but seeing as Adolf Hitler's name already comes pre-Romanized for you (thanks to the remarkable nature of the alphabets of German and English), why do so many people write Adolph?

        I could understand it if it were a non-Romanized name (Mao Zedong? Mao Tse-tung?). But come ON. Adolph? Why not just make it Adolphus of the House of Schicklgruber?
    • No. I don't think that is the explanation. It's just that it's far easier to dash off a threatening email, so the sample of threatening emails they worked from were from, ah, less dedicated, psychotic individuals than were the threatening postal messages. There are probably just as many truly threatening and disturbed emails, but they are drowned out by the angry emails that no one would take the time to send by postal mail.
  • by mofag (709856) on Saturday November 03, 2007 @12:07PM (#21224145)
    do you insists on being such a bunch of pigshit-eating donkey wanking bastards? oh look - ponies!
  • well duh (Score:5, Funny)

    by ILuvRamen (1026668) on Saturday November 03, 2007 @12:07PM (#21224149)
    Oh come on, the explanation is simple. You've got to be crazy to write a message to someone with postal mail. Welcome to the 21st century people, we have e-mail now!
  • Cap'n Obvious (Score:2, Informative)

    It makes perfect sense; it's a lot easier to send an e-mail than it is to put a pen to paper, then send the letter -- you have to be really pissed off to go through that kind of trouble. I'd say it's highly likely that angry phonecalls aren't quite as "crazy" as angry letters, too -- in general.
  • by A beautiful mind (821714) on Saturday November 03, 2007 @12:09PM (#21224175)
    If someone would take it's two minutes in order to check out the article, then it would be quickly realised that the _abstract [blackwell-synergy.com]_ of the actual paper is more detailed than the whole article linked in the summary and it is also free of the stupid sensationalization.
    • Mod parent up (Score:4, Informative)

      by Animats (122034) on Saturday November 03, 2007 @12:31PM (#21224321) Homepage

      Yes. The article is typical blogodreck, and links to a blog.

      The research itself has serious problems. These weren't samples from incoming mail. They were samples from Capitol Police files, which means they'd already been considered potential threats by at least three people.

      Consider what happens to incoming e-mail at a congressional office. First, it's spam-filtered automatically, so any bulk threat e-mailed to every member of Congress probably was dumped at the filters. Then some junior person reads it and sorts it. (The people who do that job for the White House are unpaid interns.) The basic sort is "opinion", which is just tallied; "casework", constituents of that Congressman who want some specific help; "office matters", something that the office staff actually needs to deal with, and "threats". The threats may get a quick look by a more senior staffer, who decides whether they need to go to the Capitol Police. Then, at the Capitol Police end, someone has to decide if it's worth opening a case file for the letter.

      So a study based on Capitol Police files reflects what gets through the automatic and manual filtering. The study may say more about staff thinking than the incoming content.

    • by rucs_hack (784150)
      Wel I supose if Poeple alL spent th tiem to undrstund thigs like a smurtipants leik yu dos do they wodn't be writng bad lotturs to congros in the fist plase wold tey!!!!

      You condosconsing prock

      Yrs
      angery Slishdoter
      • You farging sneaky bastige! I gonna take you dwork, I gonna nail it to the wall! I gonna crush you boils in a meat grinder! I gonna cut off you arm, I gonna shove it up you icehole!
    • When I submitted this, I think that I did link to the abstract.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    What would you like to tell your elected representatives? If you have access to any threatening letters, please link to them or post the text in the comments section.
    And please make sure to post your email address, phone number, and home address along with any of your threatening letters.
  • My armchair analysis (Score:5, Interesting)

    by kebes (861706) on Saturday November 03, 2007 @12:12PM (#21224191) Journal
    First, to clarify the summary, psychologists were not reading letters to congress (like a bedtime story for politicians), they were analyzing letters that had been sent to members of congress.

    The results were that postal threats were more extreme than email threats. This is hardly surprising. The barrier to writing a snail mail letter is higher, so this inherently selects for the more passionate people (whether truly concerned about an issue, or incredibly angry, or truly dangerously threatening). Writing an email is so easy that just about anyone will do it if they are slightly bothered by something. As such, I would expect email to, statistically, have fewer of the "fringe cases" of people who are being truly mentally ill, and more "normal people" just venting (in a profane and disorganized way, apparently).

    I do wonder a bit about the sample size, mind you. I would have thought that there would be far more emails than postal letters sent to members of congress (and far more 'threatening' ones, too), but instead they analyzed more conventional letters than email. I wonder if this is a result of the relative frequency of the two types of threats, or if the researchers had some other reason to focus on postal mail.
    • Easier to trace. (Score:2, Interesting)

      by iknownuttin (1099999)
      The results were that postal threats were more extreme than email threats.

      Snail mail is much much harder to trace than email. Therefore, the most extreme nutjobs are smarter: they realize that it's easier to be anonymous with snail mail than email.

      We all know here that tracing an IP and then bullying an ISP for an identity is quite easy and becoming easier everyday.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by dgatwood (11270)

      As you noted, emails lend themselves to rapid sending. However, I think it is more than just a case of how much you have to want to send the message involved. I think it is also partially the failure of email to have a way of retracting the message after cooler heads have prevailed.

      With email, you don't have five minutes to rethink the letter while you're licking the envelope. Similarly, you don't have to spend as much time composing an email. (I'm assuming most of the snail mail messages are written

      • With email, you don't have five minutes to rethink the letter while you're licking the envelope.
        Man, you must really like the taste of that glue!
  • Time (Score:3, Funny)

    by DangerousDriver (752795) on Saturday November 03, 2007 @12:12PM (#21224207)

    "Psychologists at the University of Nebraska have read 300 threatening letters and 99 angry emails to members of Congress."
    That will have been a long day, then.
    • It's probably a lot more than any actual members of Congress have read in a while...
    • by SeaFox (739806)

      That will have been a long day, then.

      It's not like Congress would be doing anything else otherwise.
  • by Associate (317603) on Saturday November 03, 2007 @12:14PM (#21224215) Homepage
    You suck.
    Love,
    The Associate
  • by davidwr (791652) on Saturday November 03, 2007 @12:16PM (#21224231) Homepage Journal
    Many really crazy people can't hold down a job. Can they really afford internet fees?

    The truly paranoid probably don't trust computers.

    The functional-but-unstable ones probably heard that snail-mail and faxes are taken more seriously than email. That was true back in the late '90s. I don't know if it's still true now.

  • I wonder why they read 300 letters and only 99 emails? I can't imagine the total amount of emails was smaller than the total amount of letters...
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by petes_PoV (912422)
      I can't imagine the total amount of emails was smaller than the total amount of letters...

      Oh I can.

      Emails can be traced back to the sender. If I was going to threaten someone, a "real" letter would have much more impact and be non-tracable. (Unless of course you write your address on the top, in which case the proof of "crazy" has already been made.)

      'corse[sic] you'd have to take a few basic precautions: never, ever touch the paper/envelope. Use a common type of printer (no handwritten stuff for analys

      • by cp.tar (871488)

        I can't imagine the total amount of emails was smaller than the total amount of letters...

        Oh I can.

        Emails can be traced back to the sender. If I was going to threaten someone, a "real" letter would have much more impact and be non-tracable. (Unless of course you write your address on the top, in which case the proof of "crazy" has already been made.)

        'corse[sic] you'd have to take a few basic precautions: never, ever touch the paper/envelope. Use a common type of printer (no handwritten stuff for analysis, naturally) and don't lick the envelope or stamp, so they've got no DNA. Post it where there are no surveillance cameras, preferably at night to reduce the chance of witnesses.

        Have I forgotten anything?

        Nah. Post it in broad daylight, when it's crowded, along with two or five more letters.

        Look busy and in a hurry; no-one will remember you, and even if you're recorded, what, you posted several letters. Can they find them all?

        If you should send it at night, any witness would be more likely to remember you. If you send it during the rush hour, though many would see you, no-one would care.

        OTOH, use Tor. Open a gmail or similar free account. Send a threat. KTNXBYE!

  • Premeditation (Score:3, Insightful)

    by spiritraveller (641174) on Saturday November 03, 2007 @12:21PM (#21224263)
    People who send angry emails are often acting on impulse without taking time to calm down. It's the long distance communication equivalent of road rage. We are insulated by distance and the transitory nature of the medium, just as when we drive, we are insulated by the fact that the other driver will not know us for more than a few minutes, and we are separated by glass and steel. As the incident happens, we are already moving on from it.

    Letters require more forethought and more steps (finding envelope and stamp, going to mailbox, etc.). They require premeditation. Snail mail letters are also harder to trace and thus less likely to result in a visit from the FBI.

    Someone with a real mental delusion, making real threats is obviously more likely to use snail mail when compared with the average angry constituent who just wants to let out their frustration.
    • by DrBuzzo (913503)
      Yeah thats pretty much what I thought right away. Email can just be a spur of the moment venting kind of thing. It is a lot easier. Sure it can be traced, sometimes... but putting pen to paper, or printer to paper and addressing a letter and stamping it requires a lot more.
  • I still take time to write snail mail letters to all those I care about, be it people or causes. It adds a display of thought and caring that email lacks.

    And on another note; only with snail mail can you take the time and loving effort to compose it entirely from words and letters clipped from a selection of gun magazines, to give it that little extra something....
    • by cp.tar (871488)

      Totally offtopic, but related to your .sig: I only have 3 degrees of separation (maybe even 2) from George W.

      Not really something to brag about, but funny how it seems to work: I'm not even an American.

  • I wonder if they've had a chance to read some of the posts here.

    I believe I could predict the results. :)

  • With snail mail it would require someone to sustain their craziness for the long process of writing and posting a letter. Someone who is able to do that is more likely to actually be crazy. With email a sudden bout of crazy anger is all that is required and even the average person is capable of that, especially after a drink or two.
  • Our tax dollars at magnificent work again! Yes you too can spend 8 years+ in college, come out with $100,000+ in school debt and do studies with results you could have concluded without all that time and money.
  • They concluded that the authors of the electronic messages ... but they are more profane and disorganized

    Probably something we all know in our hearts. When we write emails (including non-threatening ones) they tend to be more impulsive - stream of conciousness stuff. Whereas when people write proper letters they think about what they want to say. Even if they are crazy.

  • Because all of the people who are technically savvy enough to use e-mail and are seriously disturbed are busy posting on /.
  • I've known this ever since my cat started receiving anonymous death threats. Crazy neighbors.
  • I'm sure glad my Nebraska tax dollars are being spent wisely. Clearly, with the huge financial crisis the state is in, it is a priority that we research the sanity of people trolling across two different mediums.
  • Psychologists at the University of Nebraska have read 300 threatening letters and 99 angry emails to members of Congress.
    So what if they had read 300 angry letters and 99 threatening e-mails instead ? Would the results be the opposite ?
  • You've gotta be crazy to use snail mail for anything but shipping packages (like anthrax or explosives). And everyone on the Internet is crazy, therefore relatively well adjusted.

    This study is a tautology.
    • by rucs_hack (784150)
      I bet you've been waiting ages to use the word tautology in a slashdot discussion. I try to avoid it meself, it reminds me of a bad moment in my undergrad logic exams.
      • by Doc Ruby (173196)
        Actually, "tautology" reminds me of several arguments with geeks I've settled over the years using something I learned in my philo minor.

        Try "intractable" some time and watch the fur fly.
  • They concluded that the authors of the electronic messages show less signs of serious mental illness, but they are more profane and disorganized.
    I can see the headlines now: "New study links use of paper products to serious mental illness. Is The Office contributing? News at 11!"
  • To some degree, everyone at some point in their lives experiences mental illness. Most don't recognize it. Once you learn to recognize it, you can see it everywhere you go. Also, there is an enormous amount of apprehension against this nebulous undefined minority of "the mentally ill." The more ignorant associate mental illness with sex offenses and violent crime... only crazy people commit these crimes, so all crazies are criminals, I suppose their argument goes. Even intelligent unbiggoted people have bel
  • by Phat_Tony (661117) on Saturday November 03, 2007 @01:52PM (#21224875)
    There have been a lot of comments to the effect that it takes more effort to send a letter than an email, so there's a selection process that means only the more die-hard loonies actually bother to get letters in the mail. I agree with this, but I think there's another selection process in place that also makes the mail more scary: age.

    Of the people I've known who rant on with horrifying opinions from within their own delusional, disconnected world, there's a sharp tendency that the more loony ones were older. Not always, but there's a trend that way. I don't know if it's due to too many years of witnessing and magnifying perceived falsehoods, early onset dementia, a build-up of heavy metals in their systems, or what causes their buildup of paranoid ramblings to burst forth, but I think there's a strong age factor at work here, and that the snail mails are much more likely to come from older, and therefore more hard-core lunatics than the email, which more often originates from young lunatics-in-training who are not yet as comfortable and confident in their insanity.
    • by pipingguy (566974) *
      I don't know about you, but I'll be turning 45 next week and I'm pretty sure that "phone rage" often comes from the generation that likes to speak to real people rather than push buttons that only lead to another recorded message/someone in Bogusistan that's only reading a script and bumping you back to the original machine answerer anyway while not answering your question.

      We're too old and dumb to figure out that there's no point in trying anyway and also tend towards long sentences when angry.
  • by One Childish N00b (780549) on Saturday November 03, 2007 @01:53PM (#21224887) Homepage
    You have to be far more focussed to sit down, write out a letter, fold it, put it in an envelope and post it than you do to just bang out an email in a few minutes and fire it off. This leads to the obvious conclusion that most threatening emails received will be profane, angry missives from pissed-off but otherwise perfectly sane people, while most threatening letters will be written by people who are more mentally unbalanced, because they're the ones more likely to write such things with a level head, and not in a rush of blood.
  • Authors of Slashdot stories have mastered fewer grammar skills than the average.
    • by jchernia (590097)
      "less signs...more profane" - I think it's a judgment call, in this case "signs" probably isn't discrete and measurable. Besides less/more works better than fewer/more.
  • authors of the electronic messages show less signs of serious mental illness, but they are more profane and disorganized

    If you are disorganized how do you expect to effectively express your serious mental illness?
  • How many of these letters to Congress were directly from the Senate?
  • The letters and emails might have been reported by people who were more easily frightened by email than letters, i.e. the readers would report any threatening email but only very threatening letters. The authors assume that the media makes no difference in which communications are reported.
    From the abstract: "[letters and emails] were randomly selected from the United States Capitol Police investigative case files and compared." [Emphasis mine]
  • Thought I don't think the article goes into the breakdown within the snail mail set, I would think that handwriting would add a big variable to the perceived sanity of the sender. While the snail mail set seemed less insane to the researchers, I'd be interested to know what percentage was handwritten.

    Of course, the criteria used to determine relative sanity (or other factors) in these letters is largely subjective anyway. What qualifies as profanity, for example? So while the study is not invalid because of
  • by rk (6314) on Saturday November 03, 2007 @05:17PM (#21226339) Journal

    And it's obvious: the glue on envelopes causes mental illness.

    Excuse me, I have to put on an eyepatch and commandeer a freighter now. I'm trying to slow down global warming.

    Avast!

  • They might want to keep an eye on e-mails flowing in to the athletic department for awhile. If you think e-mail threats aren't as crazy, wait'll you see the hordes of e-mails from angry internet fans after the recent loss in football.
  • by billcopc (196330)
    Enlarge your manhood. She will love you more. You will die in 7 days if you don't.

    Soft tabs cheap, buy in bulk. We will make your penis explode.

    Hi, my name is Courtney. I live in Ukraine. Marry me or the bitch dies.

    Seriously, email threats creep me out.

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