A flurry of rumor and gossip followed recent reports of a small plane hitting a high-rise apartment building on New York's Upper East Side. Was it a helicopter or a plane? Was it an accident or a terrorist attack? The pilot's celebrity identity added another strange twist as the rumor unraveled to substantiated fact.
The process of that unraveling, of people sorting out bits of fact and fiction, fascinates Nicholas DiFonzo, professor of social and organization psychology at Rochester Institute of Technology and one of the leading experts on rumor and gossip research. He is currently researching how rumors proliferate, spread and die over time as part of a National Science Foundation-funded study.
In their recent book Rumor Psychology: Social and Organizational Approaches published by APA Books, DiFonzo and co-author Prashant Borida, associate professor of management at the University of South Australia, present new research and ideas about rumors, which they differentiate from gossip and urban legend.
"A rumor is what you do when you try to figure out the truth with other people," DiFonzo says. "It's collective sense making. The classic example is 'I heard that…'"
Gossip, on the other hand, is sharing information with an agenda, he says. It could be for entertainment or to bond with another person or to reinforce a social norm. Gossip, which may be true, tends to have an edge.
"Gossip is more to do with social networks," DiFonzo says. "A strong motivation we have as humans is to connect with a group."
The urban legend is a misnomer, he says. "'Modern legends' or 'contemporary legends' would be more accurate."
"How do people know what's true is true?" is the question that most interests DiFonzo.
His research on rumor accuracy and the role of trust in rumor transmission seeks to determine how successful people are at figuring out the truth.
One of the studies included in Rumor Psychology surveyed public relations professionals from Fortune 500 companies about the veracity of organizational or workplace rumors from their own experience. The authors found that most workplace rumors are 95 percent accurate.
Rumor Psychology also includes new studies about rumor propagation and why people believe them. The authors also recommend methods for managing organizational rumors and present a research agenda for future rumor research.
To talk to Nicholas DiFonzo about Rumor Psychology: Social and Organizational Approaches, contact Susan Gawlowicz at (585) 475-5061 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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