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ARE CHAIN LETTERS A `VIRUS OF THE MIND'?

Chain letters represent a "virus of the mind," the kind that on a grander scale may be infecting whole cultures and societies, U.S. and British researchers said Wednesday.

These "pieces of code that promote their own replication" may be doing on a small, crude level what culture systems are doing far more pervasively and with greater complexity, the scientists said in the British journal Nature.A particularly virulent example is the St. Jude chain letter, which has reportedly been in circulation in variant forms since 1903, said Oliver Goodenough of Vermont Law School and Richard Dawkins of the University of Oxford.

"It is simple, direct and, by its apparent longevity, very fit. Anecdotal data confirm its virulence and suggest that it is one of a class of postal parasites," they wrote.

"Conventional viruses propagate DNA or RNA information through cellular machinery that is already set up to obey their language. Computer viruses succeed because computers are set up slavishly to obey the programming language in which their `duplicate me' instructions are written."

Viruses of the mind work in similar fashion - though with a glitch.

"A piece of paper bearing the words, `Make 10 copies of me and send them to 10 people,' would spread its message like a brush fire - if only brains obeyed instructions as slavishly as computers," Goodenough said.

Most people decline to be so "mindlessly obliging." Yet, others are induced by guilt, fear, greed or piety to multiply the St. Jude missive 20-fold and transmit the 20 copies to new potential hosts, the researchers said.

"Whether or not any particular infection is successful, St. Jude's hosts can suffer mental distress as real, in its own way, as the physical distress caused by the common cold virus," the authors wrote.

Asked about the St. Jude letter, Paul Griffo of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, said, "Nine is a low estimate of how many times that thing has been around the world. It's as old as dirt."

The latest "outbreak" has caused the letter to surface recently in locations as geographically disparate as Seattle, England and Dallas.

Many potential hosts must be immune, Goodenough said. Otherwise, everyone in the world would receive an average of 4.5 copies by the end of eight generations - not a likely event.

"We turned out to be immune, although we both admit to experiencing waves of mild, irrational anxiety on deciding not to comply, and we could be said to seek a modicum of good luck by sharing it, on a purely scientific basis, through the medium of this journal," the authors admitted.

The letter promises good luck within four days of mailing 20 copies.

Other strains of postal viruses now in circulation promise money, women's underwear and even post-cards of "naked Asian girls." One particularly virulent chain, which requests get-well wishes or business cards for a young British cancer patient, has produced more than 70 million responses - including from Chris Patten, the governor of Hong Kong.