What Causes a Rumor to Spread?


A rumor is a false statement that spreads quickly and influences behavior. There are many reasons why people begin and spread rumors. They may be seeking to humiliate someone, break up a relationship, or take down a government. They could also be seeking to make themselves feel better about something. Regardless of the motivation, it is important to understand what causes a rumor to spread and how to control the spread.

The term rumor comes from the Latin rumor, meaning “common talk.” It refers to a story that is passed from one person to another without being confirmed as true. The first documented experiment on rumor was conducted by German scientist William Stern in 1902. He had his subjects pass a story from one person to the next, and found that the story was shortened and changed as it went through the chain.

Rumors are often spread in response to uncertainty about the environment. Uncertainty about what is occurring or what will happen can lead to a lack of trust and heightened suspicion. It can also lead to a fear of negative outcomes, and can motivate people to discuss the rumors with their peers in an attempt to thwart the dreaded event or to gain a psychological sense of control over it.

It is important to distinguish between rumors about the environment and rumors about individuals. In the former, there is a lack of proof or knowledge about what is actually happening, whereas in the latter there is evidence about the individual involved. Rumors about the environment can cause a variety of behavioral responses, including reducing sales (e.g., rumors that the Soft Drink Company Z was owned by the Ku Klux Klan and put a substance in their soda that made black men sterile reduced the popularity of this product), fostering riots (e.g., rumors that police killed a Native Australian while chasing him on his bicycle led to riots in Sydney), or promoting noninvolvement in disaster relief (e.g., rumors that water in New Orleans was toxic prevented many workers from participating in rescue efforts).

There is limited research on the mechanisms that affect rumor transmission. There are some studies that use social network analysis to examine the structures of communities that share rumors, but there is still a need for more research on these topics.

There are several things that can influence the speed at which a rumor spreads, including whether it is about an individual, group or organization, how much detail is in the rumor, and how credible it is. For example, a rumor about a celebrity is more likely to be passed on than a rumor about a family member. The believability of a rumor is also important, and this can be affected by the source of the rumor. For example, a rumor that is spread by a respected authority figure is more likely to be believed than a rumor that is spread by an acquaintance.