Around the Watercooler

Exploring the psychology of rumors.

To Rumor Is Human

Why rumors are a regular feature of our social landscape.

The Snopes family is a fictitious collection of characters from the novels of American author William Faulkner. The Snopes are a populous and pernicious lot—in true Faulkner style, they include arsonists, bigamists, con-men, extortionists, and usurers. Regularly consumed with revenge and driven by ambition, they are not a very pleasant set of relations.

Snopes.com is one of the most popular rumor investigation sites on the World Wide Web. Like the Snopes family, rumors breed quickly, often fool us, and may be motivated by less than exemplary purposes. Snopes.com has kept owners Barbara and David Mikkelson quite busy since 1993. In early 2007, they estimated that the site evaluates some 3,000 rumors.

Such a sizeable number is not surprising. Rumors are a ubiquitous feature of our social and informational landscapes. Let's consider a few of the settings where social interaction and communication occur: the Web, newspapers, the workplace, and among friends and family.

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Rumors thrive in all of these venues.

They abound on the World Wide Web: A Google search using the terms "rumor" or "rumour" one morning in March of 2007 yielded over 32 million websites. A Google Blog Search yielded 32,505 blogs posting these words that week. A search of Google Groups during the same period turned up 771 electronic discussion groups employing these terms. Rumors are also plentiful in newspaper reports. Searching LexisNexis for the words "rumor" or "rumour" in the headlines or texts of stories reported in major newspapers in a single week produced 688 hits; a Google News search yielded 7,743 news stories.

In addition, rumors proliferate in the corporate world: In 1998, a sample of seasoned public relations officers—most were senior vice-presidents of communication at Fortune 500 companies—stated that harmful hearsay had reached their ears on average nearly once per week. I once conversed with a middle manager who uttered a sentiment I hear repeatedly in workplace settings undergoing any type of change: "We are swimming in rumors." And of course rumors flourish in our face-to-face conversations with friends and family.

This listing scratches only the surface: many rumors are not labeled as such. Often, we aren't aware that a statement is a rumor. When I identify an information claim as a "rumor" it means that I am in some doubt about its veracity. This type of speech typically begins with a cautionary prefix such as "I don't know if this is true but I heard that..." or even "Listen to this rumor I heard!" However, hearsay is often passed along as fact, with full confidence in its veracity. "Seventy-five percent of the American public is dehydrated because they don't drink six to eight glasses of water per day." This false rumor came to me as one of the many forwarded emails I receive each day. There was no trace of doubt anywhere in the message, and the person who sent it to me believed it fully. (Indeed, she was simply trying to be helpful.)

Rumors may even be reported as official news in a venerable newspaper. During the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, exaggerated accounts of New Orleans residents looting, killing, raping, and shooting at rescuers were reported as fact after the city's mayor mistakenly verified them. In Atlanta in March 2007, talk show callers complained that elementary school teaching positions were being given to illegal aliens from Jamaica, and that students couldn't understand them because of a thick Jamaican accent. These false rumors were passed along as fact, without any cautionary prefix. In short, not only do rumors labeled as "rumors" abound, but rumors posing as facts also make up much of our social exchange.

Knowing that some of what is passed around as fact is in fact rumor should be a little unsettling. Some of what we accept together as true is certainly false. This implies a gloomy conclusion about humans: Are people so credulous that they simply accept any information that crosses their path?

There is much evidence that people can be quite gullible. Many people pass along preposterous rumors—and believe them. However, gullibility is only part of the reason why people accept and pass rumors without question. Even when the hearer is generally skeptical, most situations don't seem to call for skepticism. Most of the time, trusting what other people tell us works for us, lubricates social relationships, bolsters our existing opinions, and doesn't result in an obvious disaster-even if it is just plain wrong. Indeed, civilization generally relies on our tendency to trust others-and we tend to punish those who are caught violating that trust.

In any event, we don't have the resources to investigate every bit of information that comes our way. If we did greet each item of information with extensive enquiry and skepticism, we would have little remaining time or energy to live life. Generally, we find it necessary to verify only the issues that are important to us. We may accept rumors without question because of an innate gullibility, but more importantly, this easy acceptance works for us much of the time.

Why are rumors such a regular part of peoples' experience? What is it about being human that sets the stage for rumor activity? The answers can be found in two fundamental features of human nature.

First, people are social and relational entities. There is something especially "we" about our encounter with existence, even for the solitary loners among us. John Donne's memorable poetic phrase "No man is an island" suggests this sentiment. Like most creatures we seem to be designed for social interaction. We talk together, eat together, work together; we trade, barter, and bicker. A large part of what it means to be human is to communicate with one another. We also view ourselves in relation to other people—a man may be a father, a friend, or a follower. As psychologist Susan Fiske put it, we are fundamentally social beings.

Second, humans have a deeply-rooted motivation to make sense of the world. From ancient times, men and women have been conceived as rational embodied entities; flesh and blood creatures in which reside the faculties of sensing, perceiving, thinking, deciding, believing, and choosing. In other words we are sense-making beings. To make sense is to give meaning to our sensations, to put a context around them so that they gain significance and fit into an understanding that coheres. It means looking at the picture side rather than the tangled underside of a woven tapestry. To make sense is to put our experiences into perspective so that they can be understood, known about, navigated, and predicted. Without the ability to make sense, our world would be a "buzzing, blooming confusion," to quote William James. Making sense of the world makes sense.

So, we are fundamentally social beings and we possess an irrepressible instinct to make sense of the world. Put these ideas together and we get shared sensemaking: We make sense of life together. Rumor is perhaps the quintessential shared sensemaking activity. It may indeed be the predominant means by which we make sense of the world together.

Some time ago a promising young professor in my department died tragically after being struck by a truck on Interstate Highway 390 near Rochester, New York. It happened early one wintry morning the day after Super Bowl Sunday. The news of this event was, of course, startling. That Monday was full of sadness, yes, but also confusion, incomplete information, speculation... and rumor.

We first heard that he had been in an accident but that he was all right and in the hospital recovering. Sadly, we found out later that this was not the case. We next heard that he was struck by an eighteen-wheeler in the southbound lane, but that he had been motoring northbound that morning at 5:00 AM. How could this have happened? The weather had been very bad that morning—a blinding snow on that part of the highway. The southbound lane was separated from the northbound lane by 100 feet of grass. We pieced together that he had skidded into the wide median "valley" between the lanes, had perhaps become disoriented because of the heavy snowfall, and had unfortunately walked across the southbound lane seeking help when the truck hit him. Questions remained however: Why had he been traveling from the south in the first place? (He lived much further north). Why was he traveling so early in the morning (5:00 AM)? We stood in huddled groups, speculating about exactly what had happened. Rumor was an integral part of that morning's experience.

Our journey together on this earth is characterized to one degree or another by uncertainty. We see only in part, not the whole. Rumor—shared sensemaking—is one element of our collective response to this component of the human condition. Indeed, rumor is the people's shared sensemaking activity par excellence. It attends all of life's activities. It has been around for as long as humans have lived with uncertainty. It reflects the fundamentally social and sensemaking character of the human race. Rumor activity therefore represents something basic, central, and significant about who we are.

(3rd photo credit: Brandon Herford)

Nicholas DiFonzo is Professor at Rochester Institute of Technology and author of The Watercooler Effect: A Psychologist Explores the Extraordinary Power of Rumors.

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