Rumor is a popular form of social talk that may be true or false, and which spreads quickly by word of mouth. While rumors often originate with unconfirmed information, they can be a useful way of gaining insights into the motivations and behaviors of individuals and groups. They can also influence organizational attitudes and behaviors.
Although rumors are similar to gossip, they differ in three major ways: (1) rumor is factual in nature; (2) it involves a perceived threat; and (3) it can impact behavior. While gossip is evaluative and provides social network formation, rumor performs the more important functions of helping people make sense of ambiguous situations and informing them about future events. Rumors are the primary tool of social manipulation and can influence a wide range of behaviors, including increasing or decreasing sales (e.g., “Soft Drink Company z is owned by the Ku Klux Klan and puts a substance in their soda that makes black men sterile”), fomenting a riot (“The police killed a Native Australian boy when they chased him on his bicycle” led to extensive riots in Sydney), and encouraging noninvolvement in disaster relief (“Rumors that water in New Orleans was toxic kept many workers from helping after Hurricane Katrina”).
The most common factor in promoting rumor discussion is uncertainty, whether it comes from a lack of understanding of a situation or an inability to predict what will happen in the future. Moreover, a feeling of anxiety is a powerful promoter of rumor discussions because it stimulates the need to communicate with others about possible negative outcomes in order to feel better about a situation and gain a psychological sense of control over it.
In addition, rumor discussions tend to focus on a specific event or outcome that is personally relevant to the participants. For example, rumors about a celebrity being involved in a criminal act are more likely to be discussed than rumors about an upcoming sporting event or the weather forecast.
Finally, a rumor that is easy to disprove is more likely to spread than one with little credibility. For instance, if you want to start a rumor about someone having cosmetic surgery, it is best to leave evidence around. Otherwise, the rumor will die off quickly.
Rumors are a ubiquitous feature of the social and organizational landscape, and they play a vital role in society. Despite the importance of rumor in daily life, researchers have only recently begun studying rumor processes. This article draws on the emerging literature to provide a broad overview of the causes, transmission, and effects of rumors. It is intended to be a useful tool for researchers in social and organizational psychology, as well as for individuals interested in how rumors are initiated, spread, and influenced. It will also be of interest to managers, human relations and public relations personnel who regularly encounter rumors in their work.