The Situationist

Archive for October 22nd, 2008

The Situation of Rumors

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 22, 2008

The 2008 Presidential Election has included a number of false rumors about the candidates.  Jesse Singal of the Boston Globe has an interesting article on how campaigns can use psychology studies to combat false rumors.  We excerpt the article below.

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Experts began to look at rumors more analytically in the 1940s and 1950s, in a wave of research fueled by concern about how rumors could be managed during wartime. Though interest waned during the following decades, rumor studies have seen a resurgence in the last decade or so – partly because researchers are now more able to tackle complex, dynamic phenomena, and partly because they’re newly armed with the biggest ongoing social psychology experiment in human history, the Internet, which provides them with terabytes of recorded rumors and a way to track them.

In 2004, the Rochester Institute of Technology psychologist Nicholas DiFonzo and another rumor researcher, Prashant Bordia, analyzed more than 280 Internet discussion group postings that contained rumors. They found that a good chunk of the discourse consisted of the participants sharing and evaluating information about the rumors and discussing whether they seemed likely. They realized, in other words, that people on the sites weren’t swapping rumors just to gossip; they were using rumors as a vehicle to get to the truth, the same way people read news.

“Lots of times people will share a rumor not for their benefit or for the other person’s benefit, but simply because they’re trying to figure out the facts,” says DiFonzo, one of the leading figures in the resurgence of rumor research. He published a book on the topic this fall: “The Watercooler Effect: A Psychologist Explores the Extraordinary Power of Rumors.”

Some types of facts seem to be more urgent triggers than others. Rumors that involve negative outcomes tend to start and spread more easily than ones that involve positive outcomes. Researchers sort rumors into “dread rumors,” driven by fear (“I heard the company is downsizing”), and “wish rumors,” driven by hope (“I heard our Christmas bonus will be bigger this year”). Dread rumors, it turns out, are far more contagious. In a study involving a large public hospital in Australia that was in the midst of a restructuring, Bordia and his colleagues collected 510 rumors that could be classified as dread rumors or wish rumors. Four hundred and seventy-nine of them were dread rumors.

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Aside from their use as a news grapevine, rumors serve a second purpose as well, researchers have found: People spread them to shore up their social networks, and boost their own importance within them. To the extent people do have an agenda in spreading rumors, it’s directed more at the people they’re spreading them to, rather than at the subject of the rumor.

People are rather specific about which rumors they share, and with whom, researchers have found: They tend to spread rumors to warn friends of potential trouble, or otherwise help them, while remaining mum if it would be harmful to spread a given rumor in a certain context or to a certain person.

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When it comes to rumors about people rather than events, psychologists have found that we pay especially close attention to rumors about powerful people and their moral failings. Frank McAndrew, a professor of psychology at Knox College who studies the evolutionary roots of gossip, has found that we’re particularly likely to spread negative rumors about “high-status” individuals, whether they’re our bosses, professors, or celebrities.

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Given what we know about which rumors thrive and persist, the particular rumors that have dominated this campaign season seem almost custom-crafted to replicate themselves and spread to a wide audience: They’re negative rumors about high-status individuals that hint at moral failings.

Conservatives spreading the Obama rumors worry he may be lying about his faith to further his political career, or that his wife, Michelle, is cloaking radicalism in a moderate veneer.

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For the rest of the article, click here.

To read some related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Polarization,”  and The Situation of Being ‘(un)American’.”

Posted in Life, Politics, Social Psychology | Leave a Comment »

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