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.

“The teacher was carrying a guidebook, which said that a splendid view of the surrounding countryside could be seen from a certain local hilltop, and he stopped in a small town to ask directions. From that innocent request, a rumor quickly spread: a Japanese spy had gone up the hill to take pictures of the region. “The simple, unadorned facts that constitute the ‘kernel of truth’ in this rumor,” Allport writes, “were from the outset distorted in three directions.” First of all the story was leveled. All kinds of details that are essential for understanding the true meaning of the incident were left out. There was no mention, Allport points out, of “the courteous and timid approach of the visitor to the native of whom he inquired his way; the fact that the visitor’s precise nationality was unknown, the fact that the visitor had allowed himself to be readily identified by people along the way.” Then the story was sharpened. The details that remained were made more specific. A man became a spy. Someone who looked Asian became Japanese. Sightseeing became espionage. The guidebook in the teacher’s hand became a camera. Finally, a process of assimilation took place: the story was changed so it made more sense to those spreading the rumor. “A Chinese teacher on a holiday was a concept that could not arise in the minds of most farmers, for they did not know that some American universities employ Chinese scholars on their staffs and that these scholars, like other teachers, are entitled to summer holidays.” Allport writes. “The novel situation was perforce assimilated in terms of the most available frames of reference.” And what were those frames of reference? In 1945, in rural Maine, at a time when virtually every family had a son or relative involved in the war effort, the only way to make sense of a story like that was to fit it into the context of the war. Thus did Asian become Japanese, guidebook become camera, and sightseeing become espionage.

Psychologists have found that this process of distortion is nearly universal in the spread of rumors. Memory experiments have been done in which subjects are given a story to read or a picture to look at and then asked to return, at intervals of several months, and reproduce what they had been shown. Invariably, significant leveling occurs. All but a few details are dropped. But certain details are also, simultaneously, sharpened. In one classic example, subjects were given a drawing of a hexagon bisected by three lines with seven equal-size circles super- imposed on top of it. What one typical subject remembered, several months later, was a square bisected by two lines with 38 small circles arrayed around the fringes of the diagram. “There was a marked tendency for any picture or story to gravitate in memory toward what was familiar to the subject in his own life, consonant with his own culture, and above all, to what had some special emotional significance for him,” Allpon writes. “In their effort after meaning, the subjects would condense or fill in so as to achieve a better ‘Gestalt,’ a better closure — a simpler, more significant configuration.”

If you liked this, you can read more from Malcolm Gladwell, here.

Hey. I’m Alex Murrell. I'm a Planner at Epoch Design in Bristol where I help deliver highly creative, innovative and effective pack, instore and online communications for some of the world’s biggest FMCG brands. Want to know more? You can find me on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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