and media interest in rumor and gossip never seems to wane,
but psychological research on rumor has been cyclical and that
on gossip has, until recently, been dormant (Foster, 2004).
World War II saw a burst of interest in the psychology of rumor
and rumor control. Seminal work was done by Gordon W. Allport
and Leo Postman (1947), the impetus for which was their concern
about the damage to morale and national safety caused by menacing
rumours spreading needless alarm and raising extravagant hopes.
There was some formative research in the following decade (Back,
Festinger, Kelley, Schachter, & Thibaut, 1950; hachter &
Burdick, 1955) and then a period of quiescence. Another cycle
of interest is evident in the late-1960s and 1970s (Tamotsu
Shibutani, and Milgram and Toch's (1969) essay on collective
behavior, followed by other books written from a sociological
or psychological perspective. More recently, there has been
another spate of books on rumour and gossip (Fine & Turner,
2001; Goodman & Ben-Ze'ev, 1994; Kapferer, 1990; Kimmel,
2004; Koenig, 1985; Levin & Arluke, 1987; Spitzberg &
Cupach, 1998; Turner, 1993). There has also been a flurry of
research and conferences focused on these and related forms,
though there continues to be more theory and speculation than
empirical research. Nonetheless, there have been empirically
should distinguish between rumour and gossip, as each appears
to function differently in its pure state. Rumours have been
described as public communications that are infused with private
hypotheses about how the world works, or more specifically,
ways of making sense to help us cope with our anxieties and
uncertainties. On the other hand, as Wert and Salovey noted,
"almost as many functions of gossip have been argued as
writers to write about gossip." More than rumour, gossip
tends to have an "inner-circleness" about it, in that
it is customarily passed between people who have a common history
or shared interests. Popular usage defines gossip as "small
talk" or "idle talk," but gossip is hardly inconsequential
or without purpose. For example, it has been theorized that
gossip played a fundamental role in the evolution of human intelligence
and social and that it continues to play an active role in cultural
learning and as a source of social comparison information. To
be sure, it is often noted that rumour and gossip can also be
undeniably aversive and problematic -- currently illustrated,
for example, in the way that rumour and gossip have generated
resistance to medical efforts to deal with HIV and AIDS.
and Postman called their most far-reaching assertion "the
basic law of rumor." It declared that rumour strength (R)
will vary with the importance of the subject to the individual
concerned (i) times the ambiguity of the evidence pertaining
to the topic at hand (a), or R ˜ i × a. The basic
law of rumour was not empirically grounded in any rumor research,
but was adapted from the earlier work of Douglas McGregor (1938)
on factors influencing predictive judgments. One difficulty
with the basic law of rumour was that the factor of "importance"
was elusive and not easy for researchers to operationalize.
Also of concern was that the basic law of rumour ignored the
emotional context of rumour. Based on subsequent research findings,
Rosnow (1991, 2001) proposed a modified theory in which rumour
mongering is viewed as an attempt to deal with anxieties and
uncertainties by generating and passing stories and suppositions
that can explain things, address anxieties, and provide a rationale
for behaviour. At a molar level, we can usually distinguish
between two types of rumours: those invoking hoped-for consequences
(wish rumurs) and those invoking feared or disappointing consequences
(dread rumours), but finer distinctions within each category
have been described as well. Another addendum is that people
have a tendency to spread rumours that they perceive as credible
(even the most ridiculous stories), although when anxieties
are intense, rumourmongers are less likely to monitor the logic
or plausibility of what they pass on to others.
modifications of the classical view of rumour have implications
for how potentially damaging rumours may be effectively combatted
and have recently served as a stepping stone for other researchers'
innovative work. For example, Chip Heath, Chris Bell, and Emily
Sternberg (2001) have been exploring how rumours and urban legends
thrive similarly on information and emotion selection. They
have developed the thesis that rumors and urban legends are
subsets of what biologist Richard Dawkins (1976) called memes,
reasoning that there is a cultural analogy between ideas that
compete for survival and biological genes.
another recent illustration, Air Force Captain Stephanie R.
Kelley (2004), for her Master's thesis at the Naval Postgraduate
School, did a content analysis of 966 rumours collected in Iraq
from a weekly feature in the Baghdad Mosquito. Proceeding from
the idea that rumours serve as a window into people's uncertainties
and anxieties, she identified fears inhibiting cooperation with
U.S. counterinsurgency efforts and formulated ideas for improving
Coalition information campaigns. That rumours might be projections
of societal attitudes and motivations goes back to the classic
work of Robert H. Knapp (1944), who sorted through a large collection
of World War II rumors printed in the Boston Herald's "Rumor
Clinic" column and collected through the auspices of two
mass circulation magazines, The American Mercury and Reader's
Digest. Knapp settled on three categories of rumours: pipe-dream
rumours, bogies or fear rumours, and wedge-driving rumours.
psychologists Nicholas DiFonzo, at Rochester Institute of Technology,
and Prashant Bordia, at the University of Queensland in Australia,
have collaborated in another significant program of research
on rumour and rumour control (and are putting the finishing
touches on a book to be published by the APA). Their work has
largely focused on the sense making aspect of rumours at the
individual level, exemplified by a series of studies exploring
how rumours are embedded with stable cause attributions that
affect perceptions and predictions in systematic ways. Whereas
traditionally the dynamic of rumour was studied employing a
one-way communication paradigm resembling the telephone game,
these researchers have studied it in rumor discussion groups;
for example, a chat group discussion of a rumour in cyberspace
over a 6-day period. They have uncovered systematic patterns
in both the content and level of individual participation, consistent
with the theoretical idea of rumour mongering as a collective,
problem-solving interaction that is sustained by a combination
of anxiety, uncertainty, and credulity.
gossip research has not coalesced into a mainstream approach.
Most researchers are in accord that the term can apply to both
positive and negative aspects of personal affairs and that,
depending on the point of view, it can have positive or negative
social effects. An early factionalism was reflected by the opposing
views of Gluckman (1963), who maintained that gossip served
the interests of the group, and Paine (1967), who countered
that gossip was a tool wielded by individuals for personal advantage.
Wilson, Wilczynski, Wells, and Weiser (2000), using evaluations
of gossipy vignettes, showed that gossip that upheld group norms
tended to reflect better on the gossipers (and more harshly
on the targets) than self-serving gossip did.
our essay, we use social network analysis (SNA) to explore how
the structure of the network -- the links among all the members
-- can affect the potency of gossiping behavior. The SNA approach
simultaneously takes into account the density of the network
and the positions of individuals within it to predict how gossip
will affect influence and group coherence. We found that denser
networks are less vulnerable to social fragmentation from gossip.
However, this effect is moderated by "gatekeepers"
who tend to position themselves along unique social bridges
between other network members. Disinter mediating, that is,
increasing the density of social connections around gatekeepers,
is expected to decrease negative effects of gossiping and to
assist in improving norm coherence. Thus, the structure of the
gossip network, as much as the content, can contribute to collegiality
and understanding as well as to inequality and conflict.
and Gossip Research was initially published in American
Psychological Association and is reprinted with
the permission of the authors.