The Watercooler Effect
A Psychologist Explores the Extraordinary Power of Rumors
by Nicholas DiFonzo
Watercooler Chapter Excerpts
Copyright © 2008 by Nicholas DiFonzo. Reprinted with permission. The Watercooler Effect is published by Avery, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
1. To Rumor is Human
Why are rumors such a regular part of peoples’ experience? What is it about being human that sets the stage for rumor activity? The answers can be found in two fundamental features of human nature. First, people are social and relational entities. There is something especially “we” about our encounter with existence, even for the solitary loners among us. John Donne’s memorable poetic phrase “No man is an island” suggests this sentiment. Like most creatures we seem to be designed for social interaction. We talk together, eat together, work together, we trade, barter, and bicker. A large part of what it means to be human is to communicate with one another. We also view ourselves in relation to other persons—a man may be a father, a friend, or a follower. As psychologist Susan T. Fiske put it, we are fundamentally social beings.
Second, humans have a deeply rooted motivation to make sense of the world. From ancient times men and women have been conceived as rational embodied entities; flesh and blood creatures in which reside the faculties of sensing, perceiving, thinking, deciding, believing, and choosing. In other words we are sense-making beings. To make sense is to give meaning to our sensations, to put a context around them so that they gain significance and fit into an understanding that coheres. It means looking at the picture side rather than the tangled underside of a woven tapestry. To make sense is to put our experiences into perspective so that they can be understood, known about, navigated, and predicted. Without the ability to make sense, our world would be a “blooming, buzzing confusion.” Making sense of the world makes sense.
So, we are fundamentally social beings and we possess an irrepressible instinct to make sense of the world. Put these ideas together and we get shared sensemaking: We make sense of life together. Rumor is perhaps the quintessential shared sensemaking activity. It may indeed be the predominant means by which we make sense of the world together.
2. Swimming in Rumors: The Prevalence and Power of Hearsay
In the debate-filled days of campaigning prior to the 2004 U.S. presidential election, the same false rumor sprouted about Republican candidate President George W. Bush and Democratic candidate Senator John Kerry. The rumor alleged that in a speech the candidate had said John 16:3 was his favorite Bible passage. This act demonstrated the candidate’s hypocrisy, because the speechwriter hadn’t known his Bible well enough to write John 3:16—“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life”—a central Christian scripture. John 16:3, on the other hand, revealed the shallow faith of the politician: “They will do such things because they have not known the Father or me.” Opposite versions of this rumor targeted Bush—these presumably played well among Democrats—and Kerry—these presumably played well among Republicans. Such rumors can only intensify distrust between members of already deeply-divided political parties.
3. It’s Clear That It’s Unclear: How Rumors Help Us Make Sense of an Uncertain World
I was proofreading a manuscript about the history of rumor research on the morning of September 11, 2001, when my wife called and told me to turn on the television. As I sat in spellbound silence, I saw jetliners crash into the World Trade Center, erupt into fireballs, and each of the Twin Towers collapse. The TV announcers were silent at that moment—too stunned to even comment. That morning in Sarasota, Florida, the President called for a moment of silence to honor those killed in the attacks. And in the week that followed, the sky was also eerily silent—no planes were permitted to fly.
These spaces of silence punctuated the long expanses of conversation—and conjecture—in the aftermath of that memorable day. America had been attacked; she felt physically and psychologically threatened and a heightened sense of unity and patriotism. We spontaneously gathered in houses of worship to pray. We monitored the Internet, radio, and television news for information. We talked to one another and wondered aloud: Why? What’s next? During these very unusual days rumors flourished: “The Justice Department has advised all employees to avoid using the [Washington DC] Metro to get home because of a subway attack.” “Arabs employed at Dunkin’ Donuts and International House of Pancakes celebrated in reaction to news of the attacks.” “A hijacked plane is headed for the Sears Tower in Chicago.” None of these rumors were true, but they were part of how we tried to make sense of the new (to us) threat of terrorism.
4. A Family Resemblance: Gossip and Urban Legend, Rumor’s Close Cousins
This often slanderous aspect of gossip is one reason it has been frequently condemned in religious and ethical writings. From the Book of Leviticus (19:16) in the Bible: Do not go about spreading slander among your people. The reason is clear to anyone who has ever been the victim of slanderous gossip: a person’s reputation—upon which there social standing or even there livelihood depends—is damaged. The thought that one’s social community has heard that you are lazy, loose, or that you habitually lie is, after all, very hurtful. And such stories have harmful effects. After hearing that someone is addicted, abusive, unfaithful, disloyal, dishonest, hypocritical, unbalanced, unlikable, criminal, aggressive, or carries a disease, it is difficult to interact with that person with an open mind and to trust them. (Here again the law of cognitive structure activation is operating.) The Talmud speaks at length, for example, of the damage that a person can do by gossiping about another’s vocation, likening it to murder. Jewish tradition also states the matter positively: because people were created good (in God’s image), we are to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume the best about them. It is a matter of trusting in the goodness of other people and thinking the best of them. There is an old saying that one shouldn’t try to defend oneself against slander; your enemies won’t believe you anyway and your friends don’t need to hear your defense. And Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir has proposed resisting office gossip by gently advocating for the target. For example: “John wouldn’t have done that intentionally—he is a very hard worker,” and “I’m sure that she was just trying to be helpful.
Urban legends also frequently offer or imply a “moral to the story” in much the same way that the traditional American legend of George Washington (“I cannot tell a lie—I chopped down the cherry tree”) supported the virtue of honesty. Urban legends thus typically tell a morality tale or express a cultural value. A cement-truck driver was on his way to deliver a load of concrete and happened to be traveling through his neighborhood. He happened to see a Cadillac convertible parked in his own driveway. After parking the truck, he crept up to the window and saw his wife talking with a strange man. Thinking that his wife was unfaithful, he backed the truck up to the Cadillac and filled it with concrete—the Cadillac sunk to the ground under the magnificent load. That evening he came home just as the car was being towed from his driveway to the junkyard. His wife was crying hysterically—it seems that she had been scrimping and saving for years to buy her husband a new Cadillac on his birthday and it had just been delivered that morning by the dealer. Someone had filled it with concrete. The moral: Don’t jump to conclusions. The cultural value expressed: Trust your loved ones, don’t be so suspicious.
5. It’s a Small World Around the Watercooler: The What, Why, and Where of Rumor Spread
The “small world” arrangement of most social networks explains how rumors can move so rapidly. Undoubtedly you have heard or used the expression “Gee, it’s a small world after all!” when discovering that two people that you know also know each other. I frequently have this experience and it’s always a bit surprising—why should Nelson, from one part of my life, happen to know Natasha, from another part? (This phenomenon should serve as a cautionary tale that nothing can be done “in a corner.”) The world is thus “smaller” or more connected than I thought it would be. How does this happen? Some people, as you might imagine, have contact with many others—in social network terminology these people are called “hubs.” Most people, however, are less well connected. And some have few interactions indeed—we call these lonely souls “isolates.” The resulting social network is known as a small world and is very common indeed. It turns out that in this type of network, the average number of “steps” between any two people is surprisingly small. Within my faculty community of about 1000 professors, for example, I do not know most by their first name. But I undoubtedly know someone who does know them on a first name basis—or at least I know someone who knows someone else who knows their first name. These connections form in ways that one would expect—I know the Dean of our college who knows the Dean of Natasha’s college who knows Natasha, for example—and in ways one may not expect—I play racquetball with someone in Natasha’s department. My large campus community is therefore a small world after all; it is more closely connected than I thought given its size. Your social network is probably a small world too.
6. Believe It, or Not: Why We Believe Some Rumors and Not Others
On a dreadful July day in 1993, Deputy White House Counsel Vincent W. Foster Jr. was discovered dead from a gunshot wound in Fort Marcy Park near Washington, DC. Foster was a key staff member in the Clinton administration and close personal acquaintance of Hillary Rodham Clinton. In her autobiography, the former first lady described Foster as one of the finest lawyers she had ever known. He was instrumental in overcoming resistance to Mrs. Clinton’s hiring at the respected Rose Law Firm in which she later became partner. Foster’s foray into national political service was marred by an aversion to public scrutiny. Consequently, he suffered from clinical depression and anxiety. Just prior to his passing, this was aggravated by several scathing editorials in The Wall Street Journal. A shredded draft of a resignation letter turned up in his briefcase; among other complaints, the letter lamented that “I was not meant for the job or the spotlight of public life in Washington. Here ruining people is considered sport.” Foster’s death was declared a suicide by three separate investigatory bodies. Despite this, conspiracy theories and rumors arose almost immediately and continue to circulate.
One Wall Street investor that I interviewed as part of my dissertation studies had listened to the news story of Foster’s suicide. He had also heard the remarkable rumor that Foster’s death was murder, not suicide. The theory was that the Clintons had played a part in Foster’s death as part of a cover-up of incriminating evidence connected to the Whitewater controversy, which involved alleged improper actions by the Clintons with regard to their real estate holdings in the Whitewater Development Corporation. (No credible support has ever surfaced regarding these rumors.) At first this investor scoffed at the story, attributing it to politically motivated pundits. But after receiving the rumor several times that morning, he suspended his skepticism and adopted a more neutral “let’s-wait-and-see” stance. Repeated hearing of the rumor raised his level of belief.
7. Facts Are Stubborn Things: Taking Stock of the Word on the Street
In July 2007, a widely aired television report that Chinese dumplings sold in Beijing were being filled with shredded cardboard instead of meat turned out to be entirely fabricated. How this report was discredited demonstrates the power of a motivated group to uncover the facts. Zi Beijia, the part-time reporter who created the hoax, was apparently under pressure to produce a news story. After unsuccessfully investigating many stands selling baozi—steamed and filled buns—Zi allegedly cooked up the phony investigative piece using his home DVD recorder. He staged the manufacture of dumplings filled with meat and cardboard. The news report sparked a loud public outcry and the mayor ordered an immediate investigation. Even though over 100 baozi stands were sampled, no cardboard contents could be found. Professor Chen Min, at the nearby China Agricultural University, then simulated the manufacture of the cardboard-filled dumplings based on Zi’s report and found that cardboard filling—even in small amounts—was easily observable and rendered a dumpling difficult to chew. It therefore didn’t seem plausible that baozi makers had indeed been supplementing their filling with cardboard. Investigators therefore focused on the reporter; Zi broke down under interrogation and is now spending some time in jail.
8. Managing the Rumor Mill
New experiences often give rise to fears that fuel rumors among children. Even a new librarian might be the object of a schoolchild’s anxiety. Take the case of Mrs. Beamster, the fictional school librarian in the comical children’s book The Librarian From the Black Lagoon. In this delightful story written by Mike Thaler and illustrated by Jared Lee, Mrs. Beamster was rumored to be a pretty tough bird. It was said that she laminated lads who talked or whispered—hence her nickname “The Laminator.” She also glued antsy children to their seats to prevent movement and read card catalog indexes during story time. The library itself was thought to be a dangerous place—shelves were electrified to prevent students from touching the books, and these were bolted to the stacks anyway to keep kids from disordering them. The humorous tales grow more extreme—and funny—until the schoolchildren actually visit the library and meet Mrs. Beamster. She turns out to be much less fearsome than expected. In fact, she is warm and friendly—and invites them to freely explore the many funny books in the room. Thaler’s plot employs a long known therapeutic technique for anxiety: talking about a fear, exaggerating it, and laughing at it. Simply exposing the fear to air and making it extreme and laughable helps us to cope with it. Thaler has written similar Black Lagoon books about rumors surrounding a new principal, cafeteria worker, teacher, class trip, and bus driver. These fun-to-read books also serve a good purpose in reducing rumors by sapping the anxiety from which they spring.
Epilogue: Doing Rumor Well
This book is about collective wisdom in the midst of uncertainty. Two paradoxical insights about humanity have impressed themselves upon me more and more over the many years that I’ve conducted research on rumor: Much of our experience is uncertain, and groups possess the capacity to overcome this uncertainty.
On the one hand, I’m increasingly aware of the copious clouds of uncertainty that occupy the airspace of our experience. My daughter recently asked me why the facts of a particular topic did not seem to be generally known among the many people that she knew and in the media of the larger culture. I responded that knowledge is only awarded to those who really seek after it—and even then it is sometimes elusive. I was reminded of just how difficult it can be to make proper sense of any particular matter, even in our modern age of electronic interconnectedness, education, technology, and science. To know something, even in a favorable informational environment, requires effort, time, tenacity, interest, opportunity, and disciplined habits of the heart and mind. Psychologists have been mostly pessimistic on this topic and we have a right to be so; there are long and illustrious lines of research on errors and biases in individual and collective human perception and judgment. I’ve explored many of these in the pages of this book. I’m only too aware of the cognitive, motivational, emotional, situational, and social forces that seem to conspire against right knowledge, solid facts, and nuanced understandings. At the very least, knowing about these forces calls for an attitude of humility when we regard what we think we know, a ruthless assessment of how thin our understanding really is, and a sober appreciation for the hard work it will take to acquire wisdom.