A rumor is an unsubstantiated statement about a person or event that spreads from one individual to others in the community through word of mouth. It is not necessarily true and can have a negative effect on the subject. Examples of rumors include the claim that a person is having an affair or is going to get married. Rumors also spread about the performance of a company or government and can affect people’s behavior.
People tend to tell a rumor that they think is interesting or will get attention from other people. The rumor may be something that is not likely to happen but is a possibility, or it could be a completely outrageous story designed to cause embarrassment or shame to the subject of the rumor. When a person starts a rumor it is often out of jealousy or envy. They hope that if they can cause someone else to be embarrassed or ashamed that it will boost their own self-esteem. People also tell a rumor to enhance their relationship with the subject of the rumor. This is why rumors about someone being an excellent student or about how much money another person makes are often spread.
The accuracy of a rumor is determined by how well the subject can be defended. In general, if the rumor is impossible to prove false it is unlikely to catch on. This is why it is important to have proof that the rumor is wrong before telling anyone. A rumor that can be discredited with evidence will quickly die out.
Many rumors have a social function, such as alerting people to potential physical threat, for example, “Atlanta is under attack by terrorists.” Rumors can also help people manage threats to their psychological sense of self. This often occurs when people discuss a threatening situation in a way that derogates groups they are not associated with, for example, “The company downsized the department because it is owned by a ruthless CEO who only cares about short term stock gains and doesn’t have any compassion towards employees.”
Some rumors have a political or emotional impact, such as the rumor that the president of the United States had an illegitimate child or that his wife had a love affair with the former first lady. Rumors can also have a business impact such as reducing sales (e.g., a rumor that a soft drink company put a chemical in its soda that made black people sterile) or encouraging noninvolvement in disaster relief (e.g., a rumors that the water in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina was toxic caused thousands to stay home). A rumor can also have a humorous or dramatic effect such as when an embarrassing picture is circulated on the Internet that causes people to laugh or cry. The study of rumor is of interest to social psychologists, researchers in organizational communication and human resource administration as well as managers and public relations personnel.