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Rumor, the First Type of Social Anxiety

A rumor, or “rumor,” is “a collection of mis representations of true events, ideas, figures, and situations which are circulating in secret from one person to another and usually pertaining to some topic, event, or object in public interest.” It may be started by a person, perhaps intending to provide illumination on some issue or confusion, which later develops into a well-timed rumor. A rumor can be started by anyone. A famous example of a rumor is the “AP Politics” case. It spread like wildfire throughout the Internet and put pressure on the presidential campaign of John F. Kennedy.

Allport’s study of rumors is fascinating and illuminating. He refers to them as “rumors” because they “are sometimes dangerous because their truth depends on its truth.” Rumors are useful only when their source is known; if it is not known who started a particular rumor it becomes “nameless and indelible.” In many ways we can compare allport’s theory of rumor with Carl Jung’s notion of the collective unconscious or individuation.

Rumors, particularly urban ones, are very common in our mass media culture. Even psychologists recognize the power of rumour in our society. My co-worker Jerry and I often argue about the value of rumours in the workplace. We are both firm believers that morale, productivity, and employee retention depend largely on whether employers know when to look for signs of trouble – whether there is a rumour that a particular colleague is cheating, for example, and when to look for a sign of more generalised low morale such as an increase in complaints or demeanour. This means that we constantly monitor whether rumour activity affects workplace morale. We also watch for the proliferation of gossip and rumors on the Internet.

One of the most important areas of research in recent years has been the study of gossip and rumor in sport and other informal networks. The social science research on sport has found very consistently that a number of the most popular ways in which people express their opinions tend to be associated with factual reality. It is no accident that the two main obsessions of American sportswriting – the NBA and baseball – seem to have strongrumours behind them. The fact that these obsessions make people feel good and give them pleasure is an obvious result of the phenomenon. Similarly, in organisations, gossip tends to circulate through informal channels, which makes it very hard if not impossible to prove or disprove the accuracy of any given rumour.

This makes it difficult, if not impossible, to determine the value of any given rumour. This applies particularly to communication studies. In one famous paper on the subject of rumour management, James Meeacham argues that managers have little control over some rumours that are rife in organisations, for example, rumours that “seem to originate from people who have power and authority”. This type of rumor is obviously harmful because it creates a climate in which fear and power are combined, leading to grave consequences for those who are affected by it, including the target of the rumor.

Rumors can be highly informative, generating lots of useful data about how groups interact, how individuals organise themselves, what drives them to form relationships and groups, how they negotiate and how they change the nature of organisations and relationships. For this reason, there has been much research into understanding how rumors affect individuals both as individuals and as groups. David Schachter and Mark Twain are among the early researchers into the phenomenon of rumors, with Twain even characterising them as a form of “psychological terror”. Schachter, however, also suggests that there is something inherently dishonest about the process of rumor spreading. Rumors may indeed be the prime mover of organisational change; just like gossip can weaken a relationship, rumor can destroy the objectivity of scientific work.