The Psychology of Rumor

A rumor is a false and often malicious statement that spreads through informal social channels. Rumors are usually about events that have not yet happened, or about things that are unlikely to happen. They are often spread by people who have little or no authority in the community and can cause serious harm. In the age of social media, rumors can spread rapidly and have global impact. Rumors have many negative effects on organizational behavior, including lower morale and trust in management, reduced productivity and turnover, and an increased sense of insecurity among employees. They also have the potential to foment rioting (e.g., a rumor that Soft Drink Company z was owned by the Ku Klux Klan and put a substance in their soda to make black men sterile caused widespread riots in Sydney), and to hinder disaster relief (e.g., a rumors that water flooding New Orleans was toxic prevented volunteers from participating in the rescue effort).

The psychological foundations of rumor began with pioneering research by Louis William Stern in 1902. His experiment involved a chain of students who passed on a story from mouth to ear without anyone being allowed to repeat or explain it. He found that as the story was repeated it became shorter and changed in content and that the most detailed information was lost in the first five or six transmissions. More recent research has focused on the ways in which rumors are spread and debunked. Researchers have incorporated tools from the field of social network analysis to examine how rumors are disseminated and how they influence individual and group perceptions of events.

There are several variables that contribute to rumor. Uncertainty about a situation leads to rumors as people try to understand what is happening and predict future events. Anxiety, either situational or personality-based, also promotes rumors as individuals talk to one another in order to relieve their feelings of vulnerability and inadequacy. In addition, people tell rumors to enhance their relationships with others. For example, if someone hears that their university is great, they may share this information with their friends in an attempt to build up their relationships. Rumors can also be used to bolster self-esteem by putting down other groups or individuals.

While some rumors are factual and some are not, it is difficult to distinguish between the two. For this reason, some researchers have sought to develop automatic identification methods for rumor that can detect when a statement is false. These techniques include examining linguistic cues, metadata about the sender, and the use of external sources to support a claim. These approaches can be used to detect rumors in real time and to reduce their dissemination. They can also be used to evaluate the credibility of Twitter accounts and determine whether they are likely to be reliable sources of information in the event of an emergency. For example, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, some tweets were clearly rumors about the status of evacuation centers. Other tweets, however, provided useful and accurate information that helped residents reclaim their homes.