Rumors, gossip, conspiracy theories, urban legends: they're all part of the same family. We listen to them. We repeat them. And an RIT professor believes that rumors --- like snakes and sharks --- have a negative reputation that may not be deserved.
Nicholas DiFonzo has been studying the nature of rumors for more than 15 years. DiFonzo, who earned his PhD in social and organizational psychology at TempleUniversity, says rumors shape human perceptions of reality in unique and subtle ways. Focusing on everything from exercise to war, they touch a wide range of social and business issues: relationships, societal norms, prejudices, cutbacks, stock prices. One bizarre rumor about the AIDS virus was that it was developed in a Western laboratory and that the World Health Organization inoculated 100,000 Africans with a trial vaccine, causing the continent's pandemic.
There are different types of rumors, and each serves a different purpose. They tend to increase, DiFonzo says, during times of insecurity. Some, like speculations about who assassinated John F. Kennedy, circulate for years. And while some rumors are false --- sometimes intentionally --- many others are surprisingly accurate. The website www.snopes.com has surfaced as the rumor-skeptic's friend, collecting and verifying tales of every type.
DiFonzo is co-author (with Prashant Bordia, associate professor at the University of South Australia) of a new book on the topic, "Rumor Psychology." Published by the American Psychological Association, the book is part research and part theory. The authors say that although some of what we know about rumors isn't new, the rapidly evolving world of media is, allowing them to propagate faster and reach wider audiences. DiFonzo and Bordia credit rumors for having an unusual influence on the attitudes of our time.
In a recent interview, DiFonzo talked about his research and his fascination with this particular form of communication. The following is an edited version of that interview:
City: What got you interested in rumors?
DiFonzo: To start with, the most interesting question to me has been: How do you know what you think you know is actually true? And rumors are ways that people and organizations try making sense of things.
Have rumors always existed in human history, or are they relatively modern?
I think they have always existed. You can find rumors in ancient writing, usually described as something you didn't want to listen to because they tended to cast doubt in the mind: warnings of something bad that could happen.
Rumors circulate when we don't trust the information source. For example, in the old Soviet Union during the Cold War, rumors were a prominent source of information. By the same token, today, in some organizations where management is not giving a lot of information about the possibility of downsizing, re-structuring, or something like that, the rumor mill is very reactive, especially if the information source is not trusted or hasn't been very reliable.
Some researchers have described the rumor mill as the unofficial news source. In ancient times, there were plenty of reasons why people didn't trust or have easy access to an accurate information source.
What's the difference between rumor and gossip?
There's a lot of overlap, and sometimes it is difficult to tell them apart. But a pure classic rumor occurs when people are trying to figure something out or manage a potential threat. A rumor is an unverified statement that people pass around sort of as a hypothesis to make sense of an ambiguous situation. Rumors primarily circulate to ward off something bad that may happen or for interpreting something bad that's already happened.
So the classic rumor is something like: "I heard City Newspaper is downsizing. What have you heard?" It's important to the people working there to make sense of that situation.
Gossip is much more social in nature. When we are gossiping, we are building, maintaining, and changing our social network's structure. For example, if I gossip to you, it's usually about someone else who is usually not present. It is usually about private information. It may be about what they did and how good or bad that was.
Gossip performs a number of important social functions, like bonding. If I gossip with you, it signals to you that you're my friend, my confidant. You don't gossip with your enemy. You're more likely to gossip about your enemy.
If I gossip about someone else and I use a negative voice, and it is about something bad that person did, it could mean I am trying to remove him from the group, diminish his influence, push him down in the power structure. I may not do this consciously, but I think it is interesting that middle-school students understand this concept perfectly.
Some researchers have described it as a form of social grooming.
Why should we care? We're usually told to just ignore gossip because it probably isn't true or it's unkind.
That's an interesting question, and it goes to the difference between gossip and rumor. Sometimes what we hear isn't of interest to us. But sometimes we really want to tease rumor apart from gossip because it impacts us in a personal way. When President Clinton was rumored to be having an affair with an intern, at first it seemed like gossip, and in some respects it was. But because President Clinton is a person many people care a lot about, we became very interested in knowing whether or not it was true.
What about rumors? And are they good or bad?
Both. If the rumor helps you to make sense of your current reality in a meaningful way or avoid some kind of problem, giving you some degree of control, then rumors have some very important benefits.
If, however, the rumor reinforces some bad characteristics within yourself, such as prejudice, or it increases the level of distrust you and others have for unwarranted reasons, then of course they are bad.
I think accuracy has a lot to do with whether or not a rumor is good or bad, and it's surprising how accurate rumors can be.
In your book you say there are different types of rumors, each with certain functions. What are they?
I would start with what we call "motivational tension." In other words, why are people spreading the rumor? What's the motivation? And a big reason is fear. Right now, we have a lot of fear rumors that spread quickly throughout Iraq and on the streets of Baghdad. People are afraid of being bombed or killed.
Another is something we call "wish rumors." I hear we're getting a big bonus for Christmas: that's one example. The war is ending: that's another.
And then there are the wedge-driving rumors. And these rumors split people apart, drive them away from each other. They are negative rumors about other people-groups. Rumors circulate among the Sunnis about the Shiites --- how they are a particular way, and vice-versa.
There is a rumor circulating now that the Israeli government told 4,000 Jews in New York not to report to work the night before 9/11 because they knew it was going to happen. Untrue and very damaging. Wedge-driving rumors serve the function of reinforcing these negative distinctions we have between people.
Do rumors start with one person, or are they more calculated? Are they really the product of an organization?
We know the answer to that question is both, but more research needs to be done in that area. Some rumors are calculated propaganda techniques. We know that Saddam Hussein did this to manipulate his own people and discourage his opponents. We know too that Adolph Hitler did this through a very sophisticated propaganda machine. And part of the purpose was to spread these rumors all over the world to deter and frighten his enemies.
We have a tendency to think that rumors are usually false. Is that a rumor? Just how accurate are they?
If you're in an established network and you've been part of this grapevine for a while --- in other words, you've known me for a while and I have some credibility with you, and there is a motivation to find the truth --- those rumors can be incredibly accurate. They can be accurate as much as 95 percent of the time.
I was doing some research on an organization here in Rochester about to go through some major downsizing. A week before they made a formal announcement, a list began circulating. The list constituted a rumor about who was going to be laid off. It was entirely accurate.
A sociologist collected rumors in the US military. During World War II, soldiers were allowed to go to their superiors and ask: Is this rumor true? Those rumors, it turns out, had a high degree of accuracy, especially if the unit had been together for a while.
How are rumors transmitted? Only orally, like story telling?
Face-to-face, over the internet, anyway that you can communicate: whether it's real or virtual, a rumor can be passed.
I remember once receiving a flyer that said: "Don't blink your headlights at an oncoming car that doesn't have its headlights, because it is part of a gang-related initiation ritual. And part of that ritual is to turn around, follow you, and kill you."
I have news clippings that showed how it spread throughout the country. I was at TempleUniversity at the time, and I interviewed everyone in the building, something like 30 people. They were graduate students in psychology, so you might expect a healthy degree of skepticism. All but one called a loved one to warn them about it.
I called the Pennsylvania state police, and this tired trooper got on the phone and said, "Is this about the headlights hoax? I've already put out announcements on our website telling everyone this is not true."
There are businesses that do nothing but create, churn, and manage information for public consumption, including rumors. I'm thinking of public relations, employee relations, and stockholder relations, all of which impact our daily lives.
Managing rumors is a big part of what the public-relations person does. Usually they are trying to manage impressions, and they regard rumors as a pain in the neck because they are often derogatory.
Negative rumors, for example, can increase distrust between co-workers, management and workers, and between the company and its customers.
At least half the French population has heard the false rumor that Coca-Cola contains a cancer-causing agent. The agent was citric acid, but that's an example of how rumors impact customers.
And the impact on stock prices is well known.
We studied how rumors affected job satisfaction, perception of communication quality, and the more you hear negative rumors month after month about your employer, the more likely you are to have less job satisfaction, be less productive, and have a greater inclination to leave --- all of which cost the company money.
Is there such a thing as the perfect rumor?
What immediately comes to mind is the rumor that is the most accurate despite the lack of evidence. From a propagandist's point of view, it's the one that can sow real distrust and lack of confidence in the enemy.
And a lot of rumors are perfect because they can't be falsified or verified. Rumors about JFK have circulated for years.
Why do some rumors have such long lives? You brought up JFK. My favorite was that he was living in a vegetative state in a Dallas hospital. The other was that the Kennedys hired the mafia to murder Marilyn Monroe. Why do such unrealistic rumors persist?
Well, you can't assume that people are always interested in reality. Sometimes they are interested in what works for them.
During the last [presidential] election, John Kerry was quoting from the Bible and referenced a well-known passage, saying it was from John 3.16. He actually mixed up the numbers, and it was used to depict him as a hypocrite. Well, a few weeks later the same story surfaced about George W. Bush having made the same mistake. When the source was confronted, his response was: one good rumor deserves another.
But there is also something else to consider. A lot of rumors are actually started as errors by well-meaning journalists. During Katrina, for example, we heard of widespread murders and rapes, reports that included rapes of children. It turned out that much of that information wasn't true, and a lot of information about Katrina was exaggerated.
We are rapidly approaching the point where there isn't always the time for these organizations to adequately research and confirm the facts --- and we as viewers don't have the time to check the facts, either. The research shows that we are hearing between one harmful rumor a week and seven a month. But what if you only recognize a few of them as rumors?
Going to back to where we started, how do you know that what you think you know is true?