Rumors are unverified information statements that people circulate to make sense of an unclear situation or to deal with a possible threat. Rumors are about issues or situations of topical interest. Rumors are like news except that news is accompanied by solid evidence; rumor is not. A classic example: “I heard that our department is being downsized; what have you heard?” Rumor discussions are thus collective sense-making and threat-management efforts. The threat could be physical or psychological. In either case, the rumor helps people actively or emotionally prepare for negative events, or to defend against threats to their self-esteem.
Although most people use gossip and rumor interchangeably, they are different. Gossip is evaluative social talk about individuals outside of their hearing. Gossip may or may not be verified. It is entertaining tittle-tattle of the sort: “Did you hear what Kyle did at the Christmas party?!” Urban legends— sometimes called contemporary or modern legends— also differ from rumor. Urban legends are funny, horrible, or tall tales that amuse us or teach us a moral lesson. They are longer narratives than rumor, with a setting, plot, climax, and denouement. Many people have heard the story of the man who lost his kidney. Away from home on a business trip, he is enticed by a woman at a bar and they return to his room; after a drink, his next memory is waking up the next morning in a bathtub packed with ice, his kidney removed— sold on the black market. Moral of the story: Indiscretions can be costly!
Types, Frequency, and Effects of Rumors
Social psychologists have been interested in rumors since the 1930s. They often categorize them as one of three types: Dread rumors convey fear about a potential negative event: “The ‘good-times’ virus will erase your hard drive!” Wish rumors relate a desired outcome: “Have you heard? We’re getting a big bonus this year!” Wedge-driving rumors divide people groups, such as this false one from World War II: “The Catholics are evading the draft.” Unfortunately, wedge-driving rumors may be the most numerous of the three. Rumors have been categorized in other ways that indicate what people are collectively concerned about: Stock market rumors suggest ever-present stockholder worries over portfolio value, job-security rumors convey anxiety over possible job losses, personnel-change rumors evidence concern about how one’s job duties might change with a new boss.
Rumors appear to be a regular feature of social and organizational landscapes. For example, in corporations, rumors reach the ears of management about once per week on average. Rumor activity waxes and wanes, but seems especially prevalent when important changes occur that are not well understood and may be potentially threatening. Rumors cause or contribute to a variety of attitudes and behaviors. Negative rumors can lower morale, reduce trust, and sully reputations. Wedge-driving rumors help form or strengthen prejudicial attitudes. Rumors have long been implicated in sparking riots during times of ethnic/racial tension, altering stock market trading, and changing behaviors that affect health or disease detection. Interestingly, rumors may not have to be believed to have such effects: Burger sales at McDonald’s once dropped because of a false rumor that McDonald’s used worm-meat—this even though people disbelieved the rumor!
Rumor Transmission and Belief
People spread rumors for three broad reasons. First, to find the facts so they can act effectively in a given situation: “I heard that I might get laid off—is this true? I’ll put out my resume.” Second, to enhance their relationship with the rumor recipient: Being in the know with the latest information, for example, increases one’s social standing. Third, to boost one’s self-esteem, often by derogating rival groups: By putting other groups down, people sometimes build up their own group—and by extension themselves—by comparison.
People are more likely to spread rumors when they are anxious (worried about a dreaded event or simply anxiety-prone), uncertain (filled with questions about what events mean or what will happen), or feel that they have lost control in a situation that is important to them. These conditions are more likely to occur when people distrust either formal news sources (“That TV news channel is biased!”) or the group the rumor targets (“Management are aliens!”). Finally, rumors that are believed are more likely to be spread than are those in which we have less confidence.
People believe rumors—even fantastic ones— when the rumor accords with their previously held attitudes, it comes from a credible source, is heard repeatedly, and is not rebutted. Rumors that the leader of political party x tried to cover up illegal activity, for example, are believed more strongly by members of rival party y,who hear these rumors repeatedly from trusted party y officials and do not hear a rebuttal of any sort. For these reasons, the plausible rumors circulated in one community are considered fantastic in another. For example, false rumors that the AIDS virus was concocted in a Western laboratory, tested on 100,000 Africans, and led to the current African pandemic are believed by some in the U.S. African American community.
Content Change and Accuracy of Rumors
In the course of rumor transmission and discussion, rumors change. Four types of change have been identified: leveling is the reduction of the number of details in the rumor message, adding is when the rumor becomes more elaborate, sharpening is when certain details are accentuated, and assimilation is the overall shaping of the rumor to fit preconceived ideas. Sharpening and assimilation occur in all forms of rumor transmission. For example, rumors about an intoxicated football player’s auto accident tend to retain those elements of the story that match athlete stereotypes. Leveling tends to happen especially when rumor are transmitted serially—as in the “telephone game” or “whisper-down-the-lane.” For example, 20 details may be leveled to 5 after several transmissions. In contrast, adding tends to occur in very active high-involvement rumor discussions: A rumor about a sensational murder in one’s local high school is likely to be extensively elaborated.
Rumors have a reputation as being inaccurate and false, but this reputation may not be deserved.
Some situations—such as established organizational grapevines—tend to produce highly accurate rumors, whereas others—such as natural disasters—give rise to grossly inaccurate ones. Several factors affect accuracy. Accuracy is generally reduced by limits to attention and memory, relationship- and self-enhancement motives, high anxiety, the inability to check rumor veracity, and transmitting the rumor without discussion. Accuracy is enhanced when transmitted by persons who are motivated by fact-finding and situated in an established communication channel. Organizational rumors—often transmitted in communication channels that have existed for some time, checked against one another, transmitted with lots of discussion to ensure precision, and discussed by people who want to ferret out the facts—are often extremely accurate. In one organization that underwent radical downsizing, a rumor listing the names of all the people to be cut was circulated one week before the official layoff announcement—the rumor was 100% accurate.
People often desire to prevent or neutralize harmful rumors. Prevention is best accomplished by reducing the uncertainty that gives rise to rumor and by developing trust in formal sources of information. Uncertainty can be reduced even when the rumor cannot be confirmed or disconfirmed by setting a timeline for when more information will be forthcoming, stating the values and procedures by which changes and policies will be made, and stating precisely what is known. Rumors cannot always be prevented however. In such cases, rebuttals—of false rumors—offered by a source perceived to be appropriate and honest, conveying anxiety-reducing information, and relating the context for why the rebuttal is being offered, are most effective in reducing harmful rumor effects. Credible third parties are often effective in refuting rumors. False tales that the Procter & Gamble Corporation contributed to the Church of Satan, for example, were quickly squelched when transmitters were given “truth kits” containing letters from religious leaders stating that these malicious rumors were false.
- Allport, G. W., & Postman, L. J. (1947). The psychology of rumor. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.
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- Shibutani, T. (1966). Improvised news: A sociological study of rumor. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill.