By Taylor Clark, published on November 1, 2008 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
If I'm not gullible and you're not gullible, how come some improbable stories take a long time to die?
"The money it's cost me," said clothing designer Tommy Hilfiger. "It hurt my integrity."
"It" was the shocking story that had circulated for years on the Internet and through word of mouth: Hilfiger, known for his colorful, preppy styles, had supposedly appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show to air a disturbing grievance. "If I had known that African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asians would buy my clothes, I would not have made them so nice," Hilfiger complained. "I wish those people would not buy my clothes—they were made for upper-class whites." According to the tale, an outraged Winfrey immediately asked Hilfiger to leave her show—and when she came back from a commercial, he was gone.
Never mind that intentionally alienating your core market isn't exactly a shrewd business strategy. Never mind that Hilfiger had founded a philanthropic fund to benefit inner city youth long before the rumor even appeared, or that he donated over $5 million toward building a memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in Washington.
Of course, Hilfiger had never said anything of the sort. At the time the rumor surfaced and spread, Hilfiger had never been on The Oprah Winfrey Show. In fact, the two had never met until 2007, when Winfrey did invite him onto the show to try to squelch the rumor once and for all. "The next time somebody sends you an email or somebody mentions this rumor to you, you know what you're supposed say to them?" said Winfrey. "You're supposed to say, 'That's a big fat lie!'"
Nor did the president of Procter & Gamble appear on The Phil Donahue Show to "come out of the closet" about his company's ties to the Church of Satan. Nor did Liz Claiborne tell Oprah that black people shouldn't wear her clothes—which didn't stop director Spike Lee from telling Esquire magazine, "It definitely happened. Get the tape. Every black woman in America needs to go to her closet, throw that shit out, and never buy another stitch of clothes from Liz Claiborne."
Skeptical or gullible, we all buy into rumors sometimes. Even Barbara Mikkelson, who runs the popular myth-debunking Web site Snopes.com with her husband David, admits she's swallowed some whoppers. "A friend told me that when his friend's daughter was off on vacation, she had a whirlwind romance with this charismatic guy," Mikkelson says. "When it was time for her to come home, he gave her a package. Inside was a ceramic coffin with a message on it: 'Welcome to the world of AIDS.' I believed that one hook, line, and sinker."
Rumors have a way of slipping under our mental defenses before we think to question them. The best ones sidestep common sense entirely. "Think of the lawsuits parents filed over subliminal messages in heavy metal songs," says Martin Bourgeois, a rumor researcher at Florida Gulf Coast University. "People believed Judas Priest was planting messages to make teenagers commit suicide; no one thought to ask, 'Why would a rock band want its audience dead?'"
Most of us don't like to think of ourselves as gullible. But we're especially likely to accept as true—and do our best to spread—tales that have several specific characteristics that take aim at our best defenses.
At its core, a rumor is just an unverified scrap of information we pass among ourselves to make sense of the world. In one case study conducted at Ohio University by psychologist Mark Pezzo, students had heard that someone on campus had died of meningitis. The story spread because the anxious students were trying to find out what was going on: "Is the rumor true?" "How do you get meningitis?" "I heard that everyone on campus will need to have a painful spinal tap, did you hear that?" In the marketplace of misinformation, fit rumors survive and spread like epidemics, while unfit rumors die quick deaths. So what separates the fit from the unfit? What, in short, are the laws of effective rumors?
When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005, water wasn't the only thing that flooded the city. In the environment of intense anxiety and uncertainty, grim rumors flourished: Sharks have infested the water! Terrorists planted bombs in the levees! Murdered babies and piles of corpses filled the Superdome!
Unfortunately, the national media reported many of the rumors as fact—especially after a misinformed Mayor Ray Nagin told talk show hosts like Oprah Winfrey that "hundreds of armed gang members" were killing and raping at will inside the dome. Yet once the crisis began to abate, investigators found that almost all of the widely circulated stories were false. FEMA doctors even showed up at the Superdome with a refrigerated 18-wheeler to cart away the hundreds of dead bodies rumored. They found six—none of them a homicide victim.
So why did these stories pop up? Fear breeds rumor. The more collective anxiety a group has, the more inclined it will be to start up the rumor mill. As Rochester Institute of Technology rumor expert Nicholas DiFonzo explains, we pass rumors around primarily as a means of deciphering scary, uncertain situations: Exchanging information, even if it's ludicrously false, relieves our unease by giving us a sense that we at least know what's happening. "One major function of rumors is to figure out the facts and find what the appropriate, adaptive thing to do is. Look at 9/11. I don't ever remember feeling so threatened as I did after 9/11, and people used rumors to try to manage the threat."
Thus when 9/11 left people terrified and searching for answers, they heard a horde of alarming (and completely false) rumors—that terrorists had injected anthrax into one of every five cans of Pepsi, that no Jews showed up to work at the World Trade Center on 9/11 because they knew about the attacks beforehand. (In fact, about 15 percent of those who died in the attacks were Jewish.)
Very few of the tales were positive, because we're naturally more inclined to pass on negative information. "As humans, we have a tendency to weight negative information more," says Helen Harton, a psychology professor at the University of Northern Iowa. "It makes evolutionary sense. It's more important to know how to avoid a tiger than to know where a field of nice flowers is."
Of course, most of us don't have to worry about tiger attacks anymore, but we do dread things like layoffs at work. So we toss rumors back and forth to figure out what's really up.
If you ever open endlessly forwarded e-mails, you're probably familiar with at least one notorious malapropism from President George W. Bush: "The problem with the French is that they don't have a word for 'entrepreneur.'" Or this embarrassing gem from the pop starlet Mariah Carey: "When I watch TV and see those poor starving kids all over the world, I can't help but cry. I mean, I'd love to be skinny like that, but not with all those flies and death and stuff." Can you believe they actually said these things?
Well, don't. Both quips were made up by pranksters. Even so, they enjoyed viral spread for the simple reason that both are juicy enough to be shocking—yet not so far-fetched that we doubt the two parties could have uttered them. They confirm what many already believe—that Bush is, let's say, not quite firing on all cylinders, and that Carey is a vain diva—without setting off too many common-sense alarms.
In short, we're primed to accept them. As Mikkelson explains, "These stories get in under our radar because they click in with what we already believe, or want to believe." If you already think liberals are waging a war on religion, you'll be more likely to buy 2008's (untrue) rumor that the new dollar coins omit the customary "In God We Trust." (It's printed along the side.) If you buy the idea that too much money unhinges people from reality, you might believe the story that Tiger Woods rented a mansion for the 2007 U.S. Open, moved everything out, and flew in all of his own furniture so he would feel at home during the four-day tournament.
Even when presented with evidence refuting a rumor, we often stick to our biases. A 2007 University of Maryland study found that only 3 percent of Pakistanis believe Al Qaeda was responsible for 9/11. "It's difficult for them to accept that Al Qaeda, their fellow Muslims, could have perpetrated these acts," says DiFonzo.
In the mid-1970s, the Life Savers Company introduced a product that revolutionized the way kids chewed gum: Bubble Yum. Before it came along, you had to work on a piece of gum for ages to make it soft enough to blow bubbles. But Bubble Yum was squishy right out of the wrapper. It was the perfect gum… maybe a little too perfect, kids thought. What was making it so soft? Soon, the obvious answer presented itself: spider eggs. Bubble Yum was made with spider eggs.
This bit of schoolyard conjecture became ironclad truth with staggering speed, sending Bubble Yum's sky-high sales into a tailspin. Within 10 days of first getting wind of the rumor, Life Savers executives commissioned surveys that revealed "well over half" of New York area children had already heard it.
The spider egg story didn't zoom from kid to kid so quickly because of well-connected playground information magnates or influential adolescent gum mavens, but because kids are credulous, and credulous people make rumors go. "It's your willingness to pass things along that matters, not necessarily how much status or respect you have," says Duncan Watts, a sociologist who researches information spread for Yahoo. Kids will believe almost anything (another long-lived schoolyard rumor claimed the "Mikey likes it" Life cereal kid died after a mixture of soda and Pop Rocks made his stomach explode), and thus rumors run rampant in schools. But the same is true of gullible adults: They're the ones who really fuel rumors.
According to a poll, 11 percent of Americans believe the rumor that Barack Obama is secretly a radical Muslim who refuses to say the Pledge of Allegiance and was sworn into the Senate on the Qur'an (and probably hates mom and apple pie as well). The myth that he is a Muslim is so pervasive that The New Yorker could satirize it on a cover depicting a cheery new prez Obama hanging out in the White House in full Islamic garb—with an American flag burning in the fireplace and a portrait of Osama bin Laden on the wall.
But if the hyper-liberal New Yorker was trying to expose the absurdity of the rumor, someone probably should have talked to Mark Pezzo first. Even hearing that a rumor is bunk, he observes, tends to plant it deeper in your mind. "No question, the more you hear something—even the same thing from the same person—the more you believe it," says Pezzo. "Politicians know all about this; the more I heard about weapons of mass destruction, the more believable they seemed to me. Even a denial can be a repetition of a rumor." (Just ask Senator John Kerry, whose 2004 presidential bid sunk thanks to whispers about his swift-boat service in Vietnam—even though most of the media stories were about how the rumors were false.)
What's more, repeating a rumor can also make people believe it came from a credible source. In one Stanford study, the more subjects heard a rumor about dried rat urine on Pepsi cans, the more likely they were to attribute the information to Consumer Reports rather than to The National Enquirer.
Every fall, right around mid-September, Barbara Mikkelson starts receiving urgent reports of a grisly new trend in gang initiations. Prospective gang members are driving around in the evening with their headlights intentionally turned off, the story says, and when a well-intentioned motorist flashes his brights at them, the would-be gang member has to follow the car home and kill everyone inside. SO NEVER FLASH YOUR LIGHTS THIS IS FOR YOUR OWN GOOD PLEASE FORWARD THIS TO EVERYONE YOU LOVE!
It's always in mid-September that the rumor resurfaces. "That's when you first have to start thinking about putting your headlights on when you're coming home from work," she explains. "Headlights are on people's minds. That's why you never hear it in the dead of winter or the height of summer."
Rumors have the greatest chance of multiplying when the topic is something people are already pondering. As University of British Columbia psychologist Mark Schaller points out, "What matters is a match between the nature of the information and the goals of the people who are trafficking that information." So what's on our minds lately?
The election of 2008, and the thousand plausible and implausible tales swirling around the candidates. Among the best ones: As a Navy pilot, John McCain executed a "wet start" (a maneuver that involves flooding your fighter plane's engine with fuel so that starting up unleashes a huge and macho burst of flame) so reckless that he actually set an aircraft carrier on fire. Then there's the one about how Barack Obama has been endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan—they're tricky, those Klansmen.
Examine your stockpile of offbeat conventional wisdom: It takes seven years for swallowed gum to pass through the body. We only use 10 percent of our brains. The Great Wall of China can be seen from space. People swallow eight spiders a year in their sleep.
These tidbits are all simple and specific, with a vivid detail that sticks in the mind. They're also false. But they illustrate the point that tangible, easily graspable tales have an excellent chance of catching on. "Complicated ideas are not that spreadable," says Duncan Watts. "Ideas with content, when they do spread, lose their content." Rumors work just like a game of telephone; after they've been transmitted a few times, the details get lost and the message grows simpler.
According to Mikkelson, the spider-swallowing rumor got its start when a columnist for PC Professional wrote a story bemoaning our tendency to believe every harebrained factoid in mass e-mails; the writer made up the statistic as an example of the kind of ludicrous thing credulous people will, um, swallow. In time, the fact that it was a joke got lost in transmission, and now millions live in fear of sleeping with their mouth open.
The principle of concreteness also helps spread urban legends (which are rumors presented in story form, usually as something that happened to a friend's ex-girlfriend's mechanic's second cousin). Ever heard the tale of the guy who accepts a drink from a stranger at a bar, then wakes up in a tub full of ice, one kidney poorer? How about the one where the woman tries to dry out her wet lap dog by putting it in the microwave? Chances are, you remembered those tall tales because a visceral image—fingering your stitches in an ice-filled tub, watching a live dog sizzle in a microwave—got lodged in your mind.
"Urban legends survive only if they conjure up very visual or very tactile images," says Chip Heath, a Stanford business professor who studies idea spread. "Our brains are wired to remember concrete, sensory things better than abstract things." For example, if researchers give people lists of words to memorize and then recall later, the tangible ones ("apple," "pencil") will spring to mind more often than the conceptual ones ("truth," "justice").
Ever wonder why even the craziest legends and conspiracy theories never seem to die? Why do people still believe there's a giant prehistoric reptile prowling Loch Ness, even though innumerable hours of investigation have produced zero proof of such a creature? Well, it's a pretty big lake: How can we be sure she's not in there? It's tough to disprove the idea definitively.
As DiFonzo explains, a rumor like "On Thursday's Late Show, David Letterman's hairpiece fell off!" doesn't work, because people can check it out and easily find evidence it didn't happen. But a rumor like "I heard David Letterman's hairpiece fell off during a show, but they destroyed all the tapes!"—that's more like it.
Persistent rumors tend to have what Chip Heath calls a "testable credential," some element that can be misconstrued to give the story a whiff of credibility. "Rumors very often have a little truth test that people can run," he explains. "There was a rumor in the San Francisco Bay Area in the '90s that Snapple supports the KKK. You turned the label around, and you saw a capital letter K with a circle around it. People were doing that test, and then all of a sudden this seemingly preposterous rumor becomes more plausible." (For the record, Snapple bottles do bear the K—the symbol for "kosher"—as do thousands of other drinks and food products.)
Is there anyone in America who hasn't heard about Richard Gere and the gerbil? The story goes something like this. Gere checked himself into Cedars-Sinai Hospital in California complaining of intestinal pain and rectal bleeding. When doctors investigated, they found Gere's beloved pet gerbil Tibet, shaved, declawed, and dead, lodged in Gere's rectum—the result of "gerbilling," a sexual practice common among gay men. So doctors performed an emergency gerbilectomy on Gere. The gerbil was removed—but the story stuck.
Needless to say, none of this ever happened. Gere was never admitted to the hospital for rectal bleeding, and "gerbilling" is not a sexual practice at all, among gay men or anyone else. Gerbils aren't even legal in California (for agricultural reasons, not sexual ones). Like most rumors about celebrities, its origin is unknown, but we do know the rumor hit a tipping point in the 1980s after a hoaxster, claiming to be from the ASPCA, flooded Hollywood fax machines with a bogus press alert about Gere's putative "gerbil abuse."
Celebrities are easy targets for sordid tales. An almost equally widespread rumor is the one about the lead singer of New Kids on the Block being rushed to the emergency room, where doctors pumped his stomach and removed more than a gallon of semen he'd swallowed during an orgy of oral sex. The details vary: Sometimes the quantity of ejaculate is reported as one gallon, sometimes 10. Sometimes the substance removed is human semen; other times it's dog semen. The rumor has variously featured Rod Stewart, Elton John, David Bowie, Marc Almond, Mick Jagger, Andy Warhol, Jeff Beck, Jon Bon Jovi, Alanis Morrissette, Li'l Kim, Foxy Brown, Britney Spears, and Fiona Apple. But the basic story stays the same.
Once someone hits a certain level of celebrity and adulation, it seems, the mill starts to churn automatically—and the more beautiful and successful the star, the more depraved the rumors. Jamie Lee Curtis is a hermaphrodite. Cher (or Janet Jackson) had a rib removed so she'd look skinnier. Catherine the Great died trying to make love to a horse.
What is it about celebrity rumors that makes them spread so widely and stick so hard? Part of it is good old-fashioned schadenfreude. "People pass along rumors that they, on some level, tend to agree with, if there's something in the story that they identify with, that they want to be true," says Mikkelson. "We envy celebrities, and it's just human nature to pull down what has been raised so high."
Richard Gere is so annoyingly handsome that we want to believe he's really a sicko or otherwise flawed. Girls were so taken by the New Kids on the Block that men longed to believe they were actually secret gay dog fellators.
The easiest way to tarnish the reputation of a male heartthrob is to undermine his masculinity and suggest he's not interested in women at all—but rather, men, gerbils, or dogs. Which is why gay rumors have plagued so many handsome Hollywood leading men, from Tom Cruise to Johnny Depp to Orlando Bloom. "Saying that so-and-so good-looking male actor is gay is seen as pulling him down a peg or two," explains Mikkelson. "It's like, well, he may be attractive to women, but he's not attracted to women—so there!"
We might also postulate a final law of rumor survival: Sometimes, there is no "why." Often, we tell remarkable tales to build relationships or show off our yarn-spinning prowess—not necessarily because we think they're true.
And hey, sometimes they are true. Research by DiFonzo and Prashant Bordia, of the University of South Australia, has found that in groups with an established hierarchy—like large offices—the scuttlebutt you hear about company affairs is around 95 percent accurate.
"Every Halloween, you hear the rumors about people putting razors in apples and giving them to trick-or-treaters," DiFonzo says. "Actually, my own family had an experience where my wife found a sewing needle embedded in a piece of our kids' Halloween candy. I know, it sounds crazy—the rumor expert believes a rumor. Don't tell anyone."