Don’t tell a rumor, don’t tell a lie. denbee 😌 🍵
Psychological Science Agenda | April 2005
Rumor and gossip research
We should distinguish between rumor and gossip, as each appears to function differently in its pure state.
By Ralph L. Rosnow and Eric K. Foster
Popular and media interest in rumor and gossip never seems to wane, but psychological research on rumor has been cyclical and that on gossip has, until recently, been dormant (Foster, 2004). World War II saw a burst of interest in the psychology of rumor and rumor control. Seminal work was done by Gordon W. Allport and Leo Postman (1947), the impetus for which was their concern about the damage to morale and national safety caused by menacing rumors spreading needless alarm and raising extravagant hopes (p. vii). There was some formative research in the following decade (e.g., Back, Festinger, Kelley, Schachter, & Thibaut, 1950; hachter & Burdick, 1955) and then a period of quiescence. Another cycle of interest is evident in the late-1960s and 1970s, starting with the publication of sociologist Tamotsu Shibutani’s (1966) book, the Kerner et al. (1968) report on civil disorders, and Milgram and Toch’s (1969) essay on collective behavior, followed by other books written from a sociological or psychological perspective (Morin, 1971; Knopf, 1975; Rosnow & Fine, 1976). More recently, there has been another spate of books on rumor and gossip (Fine & Turner, 2001; Goodman & Ben-Ze’ev, 1994; Kapferer, 1990; Kimmel, 2004; Koenig, 1985; Levin & Arluke, 1987; Spitzberg & Cupach, 1998; Turner, 1993). There has also been a flurry of research and conferences focused on these and related forms (e.g., Fine, Heath, & Campion-Vincent, in press), though there continues to be more theory and speculation than empirical research. Nonetheless, there have been empirically grounded insights.
We should distinguish between rumor and gossip, as each appears to function differently in its pure state. Rumors have been described as public communications that are infused with private hypotheses about how the world works (Rosnow, 1991), or more specifically, ways of making sense to help us cope with our anxieties and uncertainties (Rosnow, 1988, 2001). On the other hand, as Wert and Salovey (2004b) noted, “almost as many functions of gossip have been argued as writers to write about gossip” (p. 77). More than rumor, gossip tends to have an “inner-circleness” about it, in that it is customarily passed between people who have a common history or shared interests. Popular usage defines gossip as “small talk” or “idle talk,” but gossip is hardly inconsequential or without purpose (e.g., Gluckman, 1963; Goodman & Ben-Ze’ev, 1994; Rosnow & Georgoudi, 1985; Sabini & Silver, 1982; Spitzberg & Cupach, 1998). For example, it has been theorized that gossip played a fundamental role in the evolution of human intelligence and social life (Dunbar, 2004; Davis & McLeod, 2003) and that it continues to play an active role in cultural learning (Baumeister, Zhang, & Vohs, 2004) and as a source of social comparison information (Suls, 1977; Wert & Salovey, 2004a). To be sure, it is often noted that rumor and gossip can also be undeniably aversive and problematic-currently illustrated, for example, in the way that rumor and gossip have generated resistance to medical efforts to deal with HIV and AIDS (e.g., Smith, Lucas, & Latkin, 1999; Stadler, 2003). Allport and Postman called their most far-reaching assertion “the basic law of rumor.” It declared that rumor strength (R) will vary with the importance of the subject to the individual concerned (i) times the ambiguity of the evidence pertaining to the topic at hand (a), or R ≈ i × a. The basic law of rumor was not empirically grounded in any rumor research, but was adapted from the earlier work of Douglas McGregor (1938) on factors influencing predictive judgments (Rosnow, 1980). One difficulty with the basic law of rumor was that the factor of “importance” was elusive and not easy for researchers to operationalize. Also of concern was that the basic law of rumor ignored the emotional context of rumor. Based on subsequent research findings, Rosnow (1991, 2001) proposed a modified theory in which rumormongering is viewed as an attempt to deal with anxieties and uncertainties by generating and passing stories and suppositions that can explain things, address anxieties, and provide a rationale for behavior. At a molar level, we can usually distinguish between two types of rumors (Rosnow, Yost, & Esposito, 1986), those invoking hoped-for consequences (wish rumors) and those invoking feared or disappointing consequences (dread rumors), but finer distinctions within each category have been described as well (e.g., DiFonzo & Bordia, 2000). Another addendum is that people have a tendency to spread rumors that they perceive as credible (even the most ridiculous stories), although when anxieties are intense, rumormongers are less likely to monitor the logic or plausibility of what they pass on to others (Rosnow, 2001).