Fighting a Rumor? Steal Its Thunder!

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:

  1. Rumors have always been around, and have always been looked down upon
  2. A lot of people discuss rumors because they want help figuring out if they’re true
  3. “Dread” rumors driven by fear are far more likely to spread than “Wish” rumors
  4. Rumors serve an important social purpose; spreading rumors tends to boost your social status
  5. 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)
  6. It’s futile to rebut a rumor if it’s actually true
  7. “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.

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