Psychology Today has a lengthy article online about the dynamics of how rumors spread. The author suggests, I believe correctly, that no one is completely immune to spreading rumors. Gullibility may be a prerequisite for swallowing more outlandish rumors, but even skeptics pass on their share (the owners of Snopes.com, the famous rumor-debunking website, are quoted in the article that even they’ve been duped).
Of course, sometimes rumors turn out to be true. The article cites research by DiFonzo and Prashant Bordia, of the University of South Australia, that found in groups with an established hierarchy—like large offices—the scuttlebutt you hear about company affairs is around 95 percent accurate.
Here’s a snippet from the piece followed by the “8 1/2 Laws of Rumor Spread.” Check out the article for full elaboration.
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?
1: Successful rumors needle our anxieties and emotions.
2: Rumors stick if they’re somewhat surprising but still fit with our existing biases.
3: Easily swayed people are more important than influential people in passing on a rumor.
4: The more you hear a rumor, the more you’ll buy it—even if you’re hearing that it’s false.
5: Rumors reflect the zeitgeist.
6: Sticky rumors are simple and concrete.
7: Rumors that last are difficult to disprove.
8: We are eager to believe bad things about people we envy.
Possible 9th Law: “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.”