We’ve all heard the advice, “Don’t dignify a rumor with a response.” It turns out that this advice is dead wrong.
The Boston Globe has a great piece on the science behind rumors. Rumors, it seems, serve an important purpose in human society.
The key points:
- Rumors have always been around, and have always been looked down upon
- A lot of people discuss rumors because they want help figuring out if they’re true
- “Dread” rumors driven by fear are far more likely to spread than “Wish” rumors
- Rumors serve an important social purpose; spreading rumors tends to boost your social status
- We’re particularly likely to spread negative rumors about “high-status” individuals like bosses and celebrities (it appears that celebrity culture is a result of biology–our brains aren’t good at distinguishing people who are actually important from those that simply get a lot of attention…paging Paris Hilton)
- It’s futile to rebut a rumor if it’s actually true
- “An effective rebuttal will be more than a denial – it will create a new truth, including an explanation of why the rumor exists and who is benefiting from it.” (steal a rumor’s thunder with an alternate story…like Bristol Palin’s pregnancy)
It all makes sense. Trying to rebut a juicy rumor is like telling people not to think about elephants…there’s no way to easily focus on a void. Instead, focus attention on an even more compelling topic.