Gossip is unavoidable. Wherever you go, rumors flow. Entire careers, in fact, have been dedicated to creating it, spreading it, quashing it and corralling it. In his new book, The Watercooler Effect, Nicholas DiFonzo, a professor of psychology at the Rochester Institute of Technology, examines the gossip that buzzes through every community, explaining why people feel so compelled to devour and perpetuate rumors, and what effect that has on society at large. DiFonzo spoke with TIME's Jeremy Caplan about some of history's worst rumors, the peculiarities of Web gossip, why "no comment" is the wrong answer and why certain presidential candidates should be more aggressive about battling rumors about them.
TIME: How do rumors change people's views?
DiFonzo: Hearing rumors, especially repeatedly, tends to increase our belief in them. In one study, hearing a rumor that "Sophie" had a mental illness tended to reduce participants' liking for her, desire to know her, and likelihood of voting for her in the student-government election. That rumor capitalized on a negative stigma associated with mental illness. Hearing the same rumor repeatedly tends to increase belief in that rumor along a "diminishing-returns" type of curve: One repetition increases belief the most, a second repetition increases belief next most, a third repetition increases it next most, and so on. These results are a cause for sober pause merely hearing a rumor leads to increased belief in it.
What's the best way to quash a false rumor?
Several principles can be employed to squelch false rumors true rumors should be confirmed, by the way or limit their impact. First, respond quickly to the rumor; it becomes more difficult to counter after repeated circulation and wide dissemination. Second, it is generally best to respond to the rumor rather than use a "no comment" policy; "no comment" tends to increase uncertainty, further fueling the rumor. Third, diminish uncertainty by using a clear, point-by-point refutation with solid evidence. Fourth, the refutation should also come from a trusted, neutral, third-party source. Fifth, it is best to give context and explain what you are issuing a refutation to. [The statement], "Our food products are safe," offered without preamble or explanation, will make people wonder why you are making the statement.
Can you elaborate on why "no-comment" is a poor response?Not commenting on a rumor tends to raise the question, "Why is the target not responding to this rumor?" Hearers alternately wonder if there is some merit to the rumor, or if the target of the rumor has something to hide. The net result is that uncertainty increases. In experiments, my colleague, Prashant Bordia, and I have found that the no-comment condition results in an increased sense of uncertainty and gives credence to the notion that the [target of the rumor] is attempting to cover something up.
However, uncertainty may not be increased if a no-comment policy is put into place prior to the rumor, is strictly followed, and is set forth as the reason for not commenting. Companies that are the frequent target of stock rumors sometimes point to their no-comment policy and are thus able to successfully avoid imparting information that would affect their stock price; by not commenting on anything, they reduce the uncertainty that would arise if they failed to comment on any one particular rumor.
Your book mentions that gossip has benefits. What are some of those?
Gossip evaluative social chat about another person may not be so nefarious when one desires to protect someone from harm. Hearing gossip that your son's friend is a drug-dealer may aid you in steering your loved one away from a destructive relationship. Gossip may also simply be a way to gather useful and helpful information about our social worlds without direct and embarrassing inquiry. Gossip or the fear of gossip may in this way serve to enforce the social norms that are necessary for any group to exist. And, of course, gossiping with someone signifies that they are your confidante or friend we do not gossip with our enemies. Gossip thus bonds people together even though in doing so it may tear others apart.