The Watercooler Effect
A Psychologist Explores the Extraordinary Power of Rumors
by Nicholas DiFonzo
Watercooler Reading Guide
1. To Rumor is Human
A. Describe the “watercooler” that you most often frequent, the place where you encounter rumor, gossip, and hearsay most frequently. What are the types of information you heard there? What do you think motivates people to pass along, listen to, or discuss this information at this particular “scuttle-butt”?
B. Is rumor the predominant means by which we make sense of the world together? If it isn’t, then what is?
2. Swimming in Rumors: The Prevalence and Power of Hearsay
A. In your opinion, how gullible is the typical person? To what extent do you agree with the statement: “People simply accept any information that crosses their path”? Are there situations or factors that, in general, tend to increase skepticism?
B. Describe an example of a wish rumor you have encountered; what were you hoping for? Describe a dread rumor you have encountered; what was the dreaded negative event? Describe a wedge driving rumor you have encountered; what group was the rumor dividing?
C. The rumor of celebrating Arabs devastated the Sheik restaurant. Even though the rumor was false and the owner attempted to rebut it, it was tenacious; why do you think it was so tenacious? Have you experienced similar “celebrating Arabs” type rumors since 9-11? What makes these rumors so persistent?
D. Rumors that melons brought from Israel were infected with AIDS caused sales to stall in Saudi Arabia and Qatar. What does this tell you about the underlying beliefs and attitudes of this particular rumor public (the group through whom the rumor circulated)? Why might this seem plausible to them?
E. Give an example from your personal experience where a rumor heightened intergroup distrust; be sure to describe the conflict, the situation, the rumor, and the response to the rumor.
F. What are some of the political rumors you have heard during the 2008 U.S. Presidential Primaries and Election? What effects do you think these political rumors had, are having, or will have on voting patterns?
G. Have you ever heard a rumor that someone was mentally ill? How did this affect your perception of or behavior toward that person?
H. Rumors about coworker effort or compensation affect perceptions of fairness. Have you ever experienced such rumors and if so, how did it affect your attitude toward work?
3. It’s Clear That It’s Unclear: How Rumors Help Us Make Sense of an Uncertain World
A. What were some of the rumors you discussed in the days following September 11, 2001? Did you feel threatened during that time? How did these rumors help you make sense of this event?
B. Recall a time when you heard or passed along a rumor as fact and later became less certain about it. What was the rumor and how did it become less certain in your mind?
C. What is your reaction to the WorldPublicOpinion.org finding that only 2% of Pakistanis believe that Osama bin Laden was behind the events of September 11, 2001? Why do you think that rumor—that Israel or the US were really behind the attacks—are so popular? Investigate the “Conspiracy Theories” page on the website www.Aljazeera.com (this website is not associated with the Al Jazeera TV network or the Al Jazeera Newspaper). How do you think this web page might affect belief in such rumors?
4. A Family Resemblance: Gossip and Urban Legend, Rumor’s Close Cousins
A. Without naming them, describe a person you have encountered whom you would characterize as a gossip. In your mind, what was it about their speech that earned them that title?
B. Is gossip always harmful? Describe an example in which gossip was harmful, hurtful, or contributed to a bad outcome. Describe an example where it was helpful or contributed to a positive outcome. In your mind, what factor or factors (if any) make a difference about whether or not gossip is bad or good? When people say that gossip is bad, do you think they have a particular kind of gossip in mind and if so, what is it?
C. Have you ever attempted to employ Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir’s suggestion to resist 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.” How successful were you in this endeavor? Did you experience any repercussions from of this personal speech policy?
D. Celebrity gossip is big business. What do you think explains its popularity? Why do so many people seem to revel in it? Is celebrity gossip bad or good for people and for our culture in general?
E. If you were the Hooksett town administrator, how would you have handled that situation?
F. Have you ever heard any of the urban legends described in this chapter? Describe the setting and context of the social interchange in which you heard it. What was the main purpose for which the story was told?
G. Look up any one of the following classic urban legends (from the hoaxbusting site http://urbanlegends.about.com/od/classics/u/classics.htm) and try your hand at explaining why people would share that story. Is it entertaining, does it promote a cultural value, does help deal with a modern anxiety, or does it fulfill some other function?
Alligators in the Sewers
Aren’t You Glad You Didn’t Turn on the Light?
Biscuits for Brains
The Celebrity and the Good Samaritan
The Choking Doberman
The Dead Cat in the Package
The Death of Little Mikey
The Fatal Hairdo
The Halloween Surprise
The Kidney Thieves
The Missing Day in Time
The Neiman Marcus Cookie Recipe
The Poodle in the Microwave
Richard Gere and the Gerbil
The Stolen Granny
5. It’s a Small World Around the Watercooler: The What, Why, and Where of Rumor Spread
A. Describe a rumor situation that you experienced. Rate the extent to which the situation was important, you were uncertain in the situation (filled with questions), you felt anxious, and you believed the rumor. Which of these factors seemed most powerful at the time? If any of these factors (which?) had been absent, do you think the rumor would have quickly died?
B. Are rumors more heavily relied upon in societies where news media is not trusted? To what extent is the news media available to you (newspaper, radio, television) trustworthy? How does this degree of trust affect how likely you are to transmit certain rumors? (Give an example).
C. When you first heard the Headlights Hoax (possibly in reading this book) how plausible did it seem to you? Does it affect your likelihood of blinking your headlights, even though you now know it is false?
D. What would you do if you heard a rumor that a student is going to bring a gun to your child’s school?
E. Has a rumor ever helped you act effectively in a situation? Describe how this occurred.
F. Have you ever been embarrassed or angered when someone shared a negative rumor about a group you identify with or belong to? How did you respond to the situation?
G. Describe your most recent small world experience.
6. Believe It, or Not: Why We Believe Some Rumors and Not Others
A. Rate the extent to which you agree with the aphorism “There’s a sucker born every minute.” Why do you agree or disagree with this statement?
B. Describe a situation in which you or someone you know heard a rumor that strongly resonated—or conflicted—with an already existing belief, attitude, or opinion. To what extent was this rumor readily adopted without scrutiny? If it was scrutinized closely, what caused people to do so?
C. Choose a rumor listed on snopes.com. Regardless of its veracity, explain why you think that this rumor was plausible to some people. Did it agree with pre-existing attitudes, did it come from a credible source, was it heard repeatedly, and/or was it unrefuted?
7. Facts Are Stubborn Things: Taking Stock of the Word on the Street
A. Why do you think the managing editor who wrote to Michelle Cottle (at the beginning of the chapter) had failed to check the rumor? Have you ever been in a situation where you chose not to check the rumor? Why didn’t you check?
B. In your experience, how accurate are workplace rumors? Why do you think they are this accurate (or inaccurate)?
C. Describe an experience where a degraded account of an event was either repaired or further degraded through group discussion. How did this occur? What part did motivation play in this event?
D. Most readers find the Gary the Footballer study quite interesting. Do you think the tender side of Gary would have indeed been sharpened if young mothers rather than college undergraduates had been used in the study?
E. Have you ever spread a rumor, later found out it was false, then failed to send a retraction to everyone you spread the rumor to? Why didn’t you spread the retraction? (Be honest!)
F. Do you agree with the statement that checking is often simply not perceived as the responsibility of the rumor participant? What’s behind this state of affairs?
8. Managing the Rumor Mill
A. Mary’s offer of cash finally turned the tide in the rumor management episode taken from It’s a Wonderful Life. What was it about this act that finally “turned the tide?”
B. Why do you think that so many companies adhere to a “no comment” policy? In what ways might this policy be beneficial to the company?
C. Think of gossip you recently heard at your workplace or school. How effective do you think the approach to gossipy rumors (cultivate a network of allies and spread the facts informally) would be? Can you think of a better way to handle such gossip?
D. What do you think of the suggestion that employees faced with layoff rumors productively channel their anxiety by forming committees to investigate, respond to, or prepare for these negative eventualities? Are such approaches likely to work given self-interest? How might self-interest motivations be minimized?
E. Do you think Hilfiger’s appearance on The Oprah Show was productive in helping to squelch the rumor, or did it somehow fan the spread of the rumor?
F. Since Barack Obama issued his refutation of rumors in the Democratic Primary Campaign, the percentage of people believing the rumor has increased. Why might this have happened? Using the principles outlined in the chapter, improve Obama’s refutation strategy.
Epilogue: Doing Rumor Well
A. Read William J. McGuire’s quotation at the beginning of the chapter. How might this quote apply to rumor?