Rumor is unconfirmed information circulating among persons endeavoring to make sense of a situation that is ambiguous or one that is potentially threatening. Like news, rumor is of current or topical interest and is generally considered important or significant; unlike news, it is never verified. Participants may or may not be aware of the rumor’s unstable foundation—they may regard it as fact. Nevertheless, doubtful or deficient supporting evidence is rumor’s central defining feature.
Rumors are typically discussed by people trying to make sense of an ambiguous situation or to manage a physical or psychological threat. An example of a sense-making rumor in a school district setting is: “I heard that the real reason the school superintendent was forced to step down was because of certain off-color remarks she made to employees.” Faced with a murky state of affairs in which the meaning of current events is not clear or the likelihood of future events is uncertain, people fill the information void with speculation, discussion, and evaluation. Such collective sense-making attempts employ rumors as working hypotheses. Rumors also help people to manage physical threat, sometimes by warning them of how to avoid a potential future negative event, for example: “Get out of town now! A tsunami is headed this way!” More often, rumors simply afford a psychological sense of control over the threat by helping people understand and interpret negative events, for example: “I heard that the department is being downsized despite strong profits this quarter because the new CEO wants short term stock gains (so he can sell his own shares for a windfall before moving on) and doesn’t care about long term effects on the company.” Rumors may also help manage threats to one’s psychological sense of self, often by derogating groups with whom one is not associated; one way of building oneself up is to put others down. An example of one such (false) rumor is: “The Israeli government is behind the events of September 11, 2001: 4,000 Jews were told by the Israeli Secret Service not to show up for work at the World Trade Center that day.” Rumors may of course perform more than one of these functions, as when people discuss rumors to make sense of a threatening situation in a way that derogates another social group. Thus rumor is what people collectively do when they find themselves in an unclear or potentially threatening set of circumstances.
Rumor is often confused with gossip, but there are important differences. Whereas rumor is unverified information circulated to make sense and manage threat, gossip is evaluative social chat about individuals that may or may not be verified. Gossip is idle chit-chat about an individual— typically not present—whose content is often slanderous and personal. Though an important social phenomenon, gossip talk is perceived as less serious, significant, and purposeful than rumor talk. Gossip is part of a relaxed session of shooting the breeze. A classic example is: “Did you hear? Bill and Jennifer are an item!” It matters not whether the statement is firsthand observation or remote speculation; it qualifies as gossip in either case. Thus gossip may or may not be verified, but rumor is never verified. Gossiping to another person tends to strengthen the social bonds between the gossiper and the listener—the listener feels like a privileged insider—and gossip at the same time weakens the social standing of the gossip target. Gossip can be therefore a type of aggression that often attacks another person’s relationships and excludes the target from the group. Gossip also serves to convey and reinforce social norms of the group by way of comparison. The statement “Did you hear what Sally did at the Christmas party?” may laud or shame Sally’s behavior—depending on the speaker’s tone of voice. Though gossip is often negative, it performs a positive function in that it allows people to gain information about a larger group—albeit in a secondhand fashion—that would not be possible if they were limited to firsthand interactions. “Johnny steals from people” is useful social information if a person is deciding who to invite to a party. Finally, gossip is often entertaining—a mutual mood enhancer that again strengthens bonds between participants.
Urban (also called modern or contemporary) legends also differ from rumors in their characteristic content, function, and context. Whereas rumors are unverified claims circulated in a collective sense-making effort, urban legends are entertaining stories containing themes related to the modern world that are often funny or horrible and usually teach a moral lesson. The urban legend first of all tells a story—it is a narrative with a background, plot, climax, and conclusion; a rumor is typically not that complex and is often a one-liner. Urban legends are often entertaining and tell a morality tale; rumors are not set forth primarily to entertain or propagate norms. For example, when a teenage couple was unable to start their car after necking on a secluded country road, the boyfriend went for help, only to be found dead the next morning hanging upside down above the car, his fingernails scraping against the hood in a macabre fashion. Moral of the story: Don’t park! Urban legends are stories about modern themes, such as automobiles, Coca-Cola®, and computers. In addition an urban legend is characteristically migratory, that is, its details vary from time to time and from place to place. However, urban legends may instantiate as specific rumors. For example, stories about the thief who hid underneath a parked car at a shopping mall and—upon the return of the shopper— slashed her exposed ankles with a razor and stole her bags and her car constitute a well-known urban legend. However, “I heard that a woman was slashed on the ankles by a robber at Jonestown Mall last Saturday night” would constitute a rumor.
Of course these forms of informal human discourse sometimes do not fall neatly into one or the other category. Rumors sometimes possess a narrative structure and entertain. Passing a rumor may also endear the speaker to the listener, convey moral norms, and contain slander about an absent third party. Nebulous and intermediate forms do exist. On the whole, however, rumors, gossip, and urban legends tend to possess the divergent qualities discussed above: Rumors are unverified claims circulating during group sense making and threat management, gossip is evaluative social chat, and urban legends are entertaining narratives.
Rumors have been categorized according to a number of different typologies. They have been grouped by subject matter, for example, racial, disaster, organizational, political, and product rumors. They have been classified according to the rumor public—the group through which the rumor circulates. For example, internal organizational rumors circulate among employees, vendors, and stock holders associated with an organization; external rumors circulate among the general public outside of an organization. They have been classified by object of collective concern of the rumor public. For example, pecking order rumors are about changes in management structure and how this might affect job duties and compensation. Stock market rumors circulate among shareholders who want to profit from changing stock values. Organizational change rumors often concern whether or not the change will be effective and how it will affect working conditions. Perhaps the most common rumor typology is by motivational tension. Dread or fear rumors are about potential negative events (e.g., “I heard that twenty-five staff members will be laid off”), whereas wish rumors are about desired positive events (e.g., “We are getting a Christmas bonus this year!”). Wedge-driving rumors derogate other groups (e.g., during World War II “the Catholics are evading the draft” enjoyed audience among non-Catholics).
Rumors cause or materially contribute to a variety of outcomes. Rumors can have attitudinal effects, such as sullying a company’s reputation (e.g., “Corporation x contributes to the Church of Satan”) or fostering hatred toward another group (e.g., “Ethnic Group y greeted the World Trade Center bombing with celebration”). Rumors also result in behavioral outcomes, such as reducing sales (e.g., “Soft Drink Company z is owned by the Ku Klux Klan and puts a substance in their soda that makes black men sterile”), fomenting a riot (e.g., rumors that police caused the death by impalement of a Native Australian by chasing him on his bicycle led to extensive rioting in Sydney), or fostering noninvolvement in disaster relief (e.g., rumors that water flooding New Orleans—after Hurricane Katrina—was toxic kept many workers from participating in rescue operations). Negative rumors in particular affect a variety of organizational attitudes and behaviors, including job satisfaction, organizational commitment, morale, trust in management, productivity, and intention to leave. For example, in a division of one large company, hearing negative rumors about management month after month led to significant increase in negative work attitudes and intentions. Rumors during organizational change are also associated with greater employee stress. Rumors also affect stock market trading behaviors. Experimental investigations have suggested that rumors draw investors away from profitable buy low, sell high trading strategies. And field studies confirm that the stock market is strongly responsive to rumors. Surprisingly, rumors can have these effects even though they are not believed. For example, disaster rumors circulating in 1934 after a catastrophic earthquake in India were not believed but were still acted upon.
Several variables have been associated with rumor transmission. Uncertainty about a situation—being filled with questions about what current events mean or what future events will occur—leads to speculation and rumor as people try to understand their environment and predict what will happen in the future. Anxiety—an emotional state of dread concerning a potential negative event—promotes rumor discussion as people talk with one another in an attempt to thwart the dreaded negative event or to feel better about it by regaining a psychological sense of control. In addition people tend to discuss important rumors—rumors that pertain to an outcome that is personally relevant to them. People also pass along rumors they believe more than those they disbelieve. Poorly managed manufacturing plant layoff situations where employees are given minimal information provide an example of all these factors in action. Employees in such situations are naturally filled with uncertainty; the prospect of losing one’s job is anxiety provoking; the topic is an important one; employees often have no control over such decisions; and if trust is low, negative rumors about management are quite believable. Rumors in such situations are rife. Rumor transmission may also be viewed through a motivational lens. People often spread and discuss rumors in order to find facts, that is, to ascertain a true state of affairs in order to deal effectively with real or perceived threats and to make sense of ambiguity. Telling rumors is fundamentally a social act, however, and people may also spread them to enhance their relationships. “I heard that your university is excellent,” for example, will tend to improve the teller-listener relationship. Finally, rumors may be told to boost one’s self esteem. Self-enhancing rumors typically do this by putting other groups down in order to build up one’s own group in contrast—and by association, oneself.
At least four factors have been associated with belief in rumor. Not surprisingly, rumors in agreement with one’s currently held attitudes are more likely to be believed than those that disagree. For example, rumors of government waste and special privilege during the rationing programs necessitated by World War II were more apt to be believed by those opposed to the Roosevelt administration than those in favor of it. Rumors that proceed from a credible source are more likely to be believed than those spread by a non-credible one. In a series of laboratory experiments, rumors about a murder were more likely to be believed when they were heard from someone close to the detective investigating the case than from an elderly busybody with no apparent connection to the case. Repeated hearing of a rumor is also associated with belief. After initial skepticism, a Wall Street stockbroker began to place greater credence in a false rumor that the Clinton White House was covering up the true nature of top aide Vince Foster’s death; this occurred solely because he had heard it several times. Finally, hearing a rumor denial reduces belief in the rumor. In one experiment, denying rumors that admittance to a sought-after academic psychology program would be tightened reduced belief in that rumor.
Sometimes collectives are good at ferreting out the facts— and sometimes they are bad at it. For example, rumors circulating in established organizational grapevines tend to be accurate, but rumors following natural disasters tend to be fallacious. Several types of mechanisms have been identified in rumor accuracy. Cognitive mechanisms, such as the narrowing of attention, memory limits, and perceptual biases, tend to reduce accuracy during transmission. Student who serially transmitted rumors—passed them along a chain— tended to pass along parts of a rumor that were more consistent than inconsistent with stereotypes because stereotype consistent information is easier to process. Motivational mechanisms, including fact-finding, relationship-enhancement, and self-enhancement motives, also play a part. Rumors spread by people intent on fact finding tend to become more accurate than those motivated by either relationship- or self-enhancement. Situational features, such as the ability to check on the veracity of the rumor, tend to increase rumor accuracy. Soldiers in one World War II field study could ask superior officers if rumors they heard were false; rumors circulating among this group were highly accurate. Group mechanisms, such as conformity, culture, and epistemic norms, also affect accuracy. In one observational study of rumors among prison inmates, rumors about who was snitching circulated until a consensus was reached, then conformity to that rumor was demanded. Rumors also tend to agree with the cultural axioms and ideas of the rumor public. Finally, social network mechanisms affect transmission and include interaction among participants and transmission patterns. Rumors transmitted serially with interaction between each teller-listener pair in one laboratory study were more accurate than those where discussion was not permitted.
Not all rumors are harmful, but those that are remain an object of interest to those interested in preventing or ameliorating such harm. Rumors can be successfully prevented and managed by reducing uncertainty and anxiety, reducing belief in rumor, or reducing dissemination. A sample of experienced public relations officers recommended rumor prevention strategies that reduce uncertainty and enhance formal communications. Strategies rated most highly in effectiveness include stating the values and procedures that will guide organizational change, explaining how decisions will be made, and—if true— confirming the rumor. Increasing trust was also rated highly; in independent research, dis trust of management was strongly related to negative rumor transmission in a department facing radical downsizing. Rumor rebuttal— denying the truth of the rumor—is overall an effective rumor management strategy (given that the rumor is indeed false). It is also a more effective strategy than one commonly advocated by some business commentators: no comment. Presenting a no-comment statement to experimental participants who had heard negative rumors about a food manufacturer raised their level of uncertainty and suspicion as much as simply hearing the rumor alone. Some variables moderate the effectiveness of rebuttals; rebuttals proceeding from a source perceived to be appropriate (i.e., knowledgeable regarding the rumor) and honest were most effective in reducing belief in a rumor. Indeed trusted third-party sources of rebuttal are effective. In addition effective rebuttals assist the recipient in attaining a sense of control; for example, rebuttals can include specific actions the hearer can take in order to minimize potential harm from a dreaded negative event. Finally, effective rebuttals can include a rebuttal context that addresses why the rebuttal is being issued; for example, “A competitor is spreading false and malicious rumors, and that is why we are rebutting them today.”
SEE ALSO Collective Wisdom; Equity Markets; Financial Markets; Hearsay; Ignorance, Pluralistic; Lay Theories; Lying; Psychology; Self-Esteem; Social Psychology; Storytelling; Trust
Allport, Gordon W., and Leo J. Postman. 1947. The Psychology of Rumor. New York: Holt, Rinehart.
Bordia, Prashant, and Nicholas DiFonzo. 2002. When Social Psychology Became Less Social: Prasad and the History of Rumor Research. Asian Journal of Social Psychology 5: 49–61.
Bordia, Prashant, and Nicholas DiFonzo. 2004. Problem Solving in Social Interactions on the Internet: Rumor as Social Cognition. Social Psychology Quarterly 67 (1): 33–49.
Bordia, Prashant, and Nicholas DiFonzo. 2005. Psychological Motivations in Rumor Spread. In Rumor Mills: The Social Impact of Rumor and Legend, eds. Gary Alan Fine, Véronique Campion-Vincent, and Chip Heath, 87–101. New Brunswick, NJ: Aldine Transactions.
Bordia, Prashant, Nicholas DiFonzo, Robin Haines, and L. Chaseling. 2005. Rumor Denials as Persuasive Messages: Effects of Personal Relevance, Source, and Message Characteristics. Journal of Applied Social Psychology 35 (6): 1301–1331.
Buckner, H. Taylor. 1965. A Theory of Rumor Transmission. Public Opinion Quarterly 29: 54–70.
DiFonzo, Nicholas, and Prashant Bordia. 1997. Rumor and Prediction: Making Sense (but Losing Dollars) in the Stock Market. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 71 (3): 329–353.
DiFonzo, Nicholas, and Prashant Bordia. 1998. A Tale of Two Corporations: Managing Uncertainty during Organizational Change. Human Resource Management 37 (3–4): 295–303.
DiFonzo, Nicholas, and Prashant Bordia. 2000. How Top PR Professionals Handle Hearsay: Corporate Rumors, Their Effects, and Strategies to Manage Them. Public Relations Review 26 (2): 173–190.
DiFonzo, Nicholas, and Prashant Bordia. 2007. Rumor Psychology: Social and Organizational Approaches. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
DiFonzo, Nicholas, and Prashant Bordia. 2007. Rumor’s Influence: Toward a Dynamic Social Impact Theory of Rumor. In The Science of Social Influence: Advances and Future Progress, ed. Anthony R. Pratkanis, 271–296. Philadelphia: Psychology.
Kamins, Michael A., Valerie S. Folkes, and Lars Perner. 1997. Consumer Responses to Rumors: Good News, Bad News. Journal of Consumer Psychology 6 (2): 165–187.
Kimmel, Allan J. 2004. Rumors and Rumor Control: A Manager’s Guide to Understanding and Combating Rumors. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Publishers.
Koller, Michael. 1992. Rumor Rebuttal in the Marketplace. Journal of Economic Psychology 13 (1): 167–186.
Prasad, J. 1935. The Psychology of Rumour: A Study Relating to the Great Indian Earthquake of 1934. British Journal of Psychology 26: 1–15.
Rosnow, Ralph L. 1991. Inside Rumor: A Personal Journey. American Psychologist 46 (5): 484–496.
Rosnow, Ralph L., and Gary Alan Fine. 1976. Rumor and Gossip: The Social Psychology of Hearsay. New York: Elsevier.
Shibutani, Tamotsu. 1966. Improvised News: A Sociological Study of Rumor. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill.
Turner, R. H. 1994. Rumor as Intensified Information Seeking: Earthquake Rumors in China and the United States. In Disasters, Collective Behavior, and Social Organization, eds. Russell R. Dynes and Kathleen J. Tierney, 244–256. Newark: University of Delaware Press.
Walker, C. J., and C. A. Beckerle. 1987. The Effect of Anxiety on Rumor Transmission. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality 2: 353–360.