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Plumbing the Depths of Rumor Research


Back in the early 1980s when I was based in London, a securities analyst from the city--London's version of Wall Street--called me up a couple of times to check on a particular story that he'd heard. Was it, in fact, true that Russia had invaded Poland? Rumors were rife in the markets, where stocks have risen and fallen on far less. I told him each time that I had heard no such thing. I don't know why he thought I would have been tipped off to the Warsaw Pact's plans for the kick-off of World War III beyond the fact that I'd been to Poland. But more mysterious is how such rumors gain currency and, in cases where they can't be disproved, credibility. That is a mystery that researchers at three universities are about to study with a National Science Foundation grant. One of them is Martin Bourgeois, a social psychologist at the University of Wyoming.

Welcome to the program, Professor Bourgeois.

Professor MARTIN BOURGEOIS (University of Wyoming): Thank you.

SIEGEL: How would you describe the aim of this research project that involves the University of Wyoming, also Rochester Institute of Technology and the University of Southern Australia?

Prof. BOURGEOIS: I think the overall aim is just to find out what things would make a rumor more or less likely to be spread and to be believed. We can look at aspects of the rumors themselves. We can look at aspects of the people who are passing them along. We can look at aspects of the groups that people belong to, the communication networks they're in. And so how do all of these variables work together to make a rumor more or less likely to be spread?

SIEGEL: I was raised on the story that people had bought pet alligators in New York and flushed them down the toilet and entire tribes of alligators inhabited the sewer system of New York City.

Prof. BOURGEOIS: I'm glad you mentioned that because when I was growing up in Ohio we had similar rumors, only they weren't alligators, they were pet snakes.

SIEGEL: Well, how will you go about studying this?

Prof. BOURGEOIS: Well, there's a number of different angles we'll take. On one level, we'll use computer simulation, and you can use mathematic modeling to see how fast rumors would be likely to spread through a group depending on how easy it is for people to talk to each other within the group. And then we'll bring real groups of people together and configure them through e-mail networks so that some people in the group are talking to some subsets of the other people within the group. When we do that, we'll just kind of introduce a rumor to one of the group members and just ask them to discuss them as they would in their everyday lives if they had heard the rumor.

SIEGEL: Well, what are the ethics here of rumor research? I mean, to say that there are snakes wild in the sewers of Toledo, Ohio, is one thing. But to say that something about a real-live person is true, you'd want to make sure that it's true before you sent such a rumor out, wouldn't you?

Prof. BOURGEOIS: Well, that's very true and there'll be laboratory experiments and so we will get informed consent from people, but we'll withhold some aspects of the research until after they participate. So, for example, we'll tell them beforehand that some of these rumors we're passing along may be true, some may not be true. And then afterwards we'll debrief them and make it clear to them that we did have to make up some of these rumors in order to study them. I think in this kind of research a little bit of deception is necessary.

SIEGEL: Is there enough there about rumor to be subjected to rigorous study? I mean, is it just too squishy a subject?

Prof. BOURGEOIS: Well, social psychology as a field gets criticized often for tackling these squishy subjects. And the study of rumors actually goes back early in my field to the 1940s. They used to play versions of the telephone game, if you're familiar with that, where you pass information along and it gets passed along. It actually had a long history in the field of social psychology, but really nobody studied them for the past 50 years or so.

SIEGEL: So this is a return to the field of studying rumors?

Prof. BOURGEOIS: Yeah, I think that's true.

SIEGEL: You know, there might be lots of people listening who are familiar with fascinating rumors that you haven't heard about yet in your research.

Prof. BOURGEOIS: That's right, and I would love to encourage them to pass them along to me. One of the aims of this research is to collect and archive some of the rumors that are out there.

SIEGEL: But wouldn't you necessarily be asking for the people who don't believe the stories to send them to you? That is, the people who believe them probably don't think they are rumors.

Prof. BOURGEOIS: Now that's an excellent point. So one man's rumor is another man's cold, hard fact, and I think you're right about that. So I'm interested in the rumors people believe and don't believe.

SIEGEL: Well, we hope people will send them to you. Martin Bourgeois, thanks a lot for talking with us.

Prof. BOURGEOIS: All right, thank you very much.

SIEGEL: That's Martin Bourgeois of the University of Wyoming. He's studying rumors with colleagues at the Rochester Institute of Technology and the University of Southern Australia. To send in your rumor to the research team, you can look for the link on our Web site, npr.org.

MELISSA BLOCK (Host): This is NPR, National Public Radio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.