Rumor and Its Effects

Rumor is a piece of information or story passed from one person to another without confirmation of its truth. It is often inaccurate and unsubstantiated, but it is widely believed. Rumors often have an ulterior motive of either a personal or partisan nature. They can spread quickly and can cause significant damage, ranging from a loss of business (eg. “Soft Drink Company z is owned by the Ku Klux Klan and puts a substance in its soda that makes black people sterile”) to fomenting riots (“police killed native Australian by chasing him on bicycle after he ran into the path of an approaching train”).

The word rumor derives from Latin rumore, meaning common talk, but the term has a distinct meaning in social science and popular culture. Rumors are unsubstantiated stories or statements that circulate among persons seeking to make sense of ambiguous or potentially threatening situations. They are often false, but they are also often entertaining and elicit strong emotional responses.

Research on rumor has focused on its transmission and effects. Several variables have been found to influence the likelihood and speed of a rumor’s dissemination:

Uncertainty about a situation tends to promote rumors because people discuss their attempts to understand what is happening or predict what will happen in the future. Anxiety–an emotion of dread about an impending negative event–also leads to rumor discussion as people discuss their strategies for thwarting the negative event or feeling better about it by regaining a psychological sense of control.

When a rumor is believable it is often because it agrees with the person’s cultural and epistemic beliefs. It is also because it resonates with their psychological sense of self-enhancement, self-preservation or group loyalty. Rumors that are able to be checked for accuracy, such as those heard by soldiers in one field study who could ask their superior officers to confirm or deny, tend to be more accurate than rumors heard by prisoners who were not able to check them. In addition, a rumor that is repeated tends to increase belief, as was demonstrated by the fact that a Wall Street stockbroker placed more credence in a false rumor about the Clinton White House covering up Vince Foster’s death after hearing it multiple times.

Negative rumors can be particularly damaging because they can reduce job satisfaction, organizational commitment and trust in management. They can also be destructive to the morale of work groups, lead to poor performance and even result in employees leaving a company (e.g., a rumor that a company has a toxic environment led many employees to quit after Hurricane Katrina). Rumors about sexual misconduct and racism have been shown to be highly harmful for employee morale. In some cases, the rumors have been proven to be false, but in others, they are a source of concern and require follow-up investigations by human resource managers and other supervisors. If the rumor is true, an investigation can result in employee terminations.