The psychology of rumour

In his book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell introduces ‘The Psychology of Rumour’ by the sociologist Gordon Allport (illustrated above).

Allport tells the story of a rumour involving a Chinese teacher who was traveling through Maine on vacation in the summer of 1945, shortly before Japan’s surrender to the Allies at the end of World War II.

The passage demonstrates the three ways in which people adapt stories and pass them on: levelling, sharpening and assimilation. This process forms the basis of how rumours spread.

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Bystander effect

The Bystander Effect describes how, as the amount of people who witness an event increases, the probability that each of them will act in response decreases.

Wikipedia provides this definition:

“The bystander effect is a social psychological phenomenon that refers to cases in which individuals do not offer any means of help to a victim when other people are present.”

In his book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell illustrates the Bystander Effect by describing the the now infamous 1964 stabbing of a young New Yorker by the name of Kitty Genovese (pictured).

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Critical mass and The Tipping Point

Critical mass describes the point at which the spread-rate of an innovation or idea “tips” from being in a state of equilibrium to a state of rapid, exponential growth.

In this definition there are three independent stages:

  1. Equilibrium
  2. Critical mass
  3. Exponential growth

In his eponymous book, Malcolm Gladwell refers to the moment of critical mass as the tipping point. He provides a passage which illustrates these three stages beautifully.

“The best way to understand the Tipping Point is to imagine a hypothetical outbreak of the flu. Suppose, for example, that one summer 1,000 tourists come to Manhattan from Canada carrying an untreatable strain of twenty-four-hour virus.”

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We are doing more than ever

From this piece in The Guardian by Daniel J Levitin.

“Our brains are busier than ever before. We’re assaulted with facts, pseudo facts, jibber-jabber, and rumour, all posing as information. Trying to figure out what you need to know and what you can ignore is exhausting. At the same time, we are all doing more. Thirty years ago, travel agents made our airline and rail reservations, salespeople helped us find what we were looking for in shops, and professional typists or secretaries helped busy people with their correspondence. Now we do most of those things ourselves. We are doing the jobs of 10 different people while still trying to keep up with our lives, our children and parents, our friends, our careers, our hobbies, and our favourite TV shows.

Our smartphones have become Swiss army knife–like appliances that include a dictionary, calculator, web browser, email, Game Boy, appointment calendar, voice recorder, guitar tuner, weather forecaster, GPS, texter, tweeter, Facebook updater, and flashlight. They’re more powerful and do more things than the most advanced computer at IBM corporate headquarters 30 years ago. And we use them all the time, part of a 21st-century mania for cramming everything we do into every single spare moment of downtime. We text while we’re walking across the street, catch up on email while standing in a queue – and while having lunch with friends, we surreptitiously check to see what our other friends are doing. At the kitchen counter, cosy and secure in our domicile, we write our shopping lists on smartphones while we are listening to that wonderfully informative podcast on urban beekeeping.”

It seems that not only are we doing more things in less time, but we are doing more things at the same time.

Network effect

According to Wikipedia:

A network effect […] is the effect that one user of a good or service has on the value of that product to other people. When a network effect is present, the value of a product or service is dependent on the number of others using it.

In essence, if more people using a system makes the system more valuable, a network effect is at play.

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Dunbar’s Number

Dunbar’s Number, 150, describes the maximum amount of successful, stable, social relationships that one person can simultaneously maintain. The British evolutionary biologist, anthropologist and author of How Many Friends Does One Person Need?, Robin Dunbar, theorised that if a person exceeded this limit then one or more of their existing social connections will suffer and weaken as a consequence.

Malcolm Gladwell introduces Dunbar’s Number in the following passage taken from The Tipping Point.

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