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Psychologist Trying to Map Out How Rumors Spread

During the 2004 presidential election, two nearly identical rumors circulated through the sparring political parties.

One rumor suggested President George W. Bush had misquoted the Bible, and the other blamed Senator John Kerry for the same fault.

Which rumor you heard probably depended on the party you were affiliated with.

"The anti-Bush rumor would congregate with clusters of Democrats," said Nicholas DiFonzo, a social and organization psychologist at Rochester Institute of Technology and coauthor of the upcoming book "Rumor Psychology: Social and Organizational Approaches."

You can help

DiFonzo is currently leading a project funded by the National Science Foundation to map and model how rumors spread.

A rumor is a bit of unverified information circulating through the grapevine of a group, which tries to make sense of the information or cope with a threat.

Research shows that we are bad at unearthing the dirt as individuals; there are also some studies that have found we are, collectively at least, decent detectives.

By the end of the campaign season, Democrats and Republicans alike knew the inside story that both Bible-quoting rumors were false.

"The kind of network configuration we're embedded in can either help or hinder us ferret out the facts," DiFonzo said. "Our ideas about another [group of people] is sometimes, fairly often, based on unverified statements about these groups, and that's a rumor."

In the interest of reducing conflict, DiFonzo hopes to learn how rumors can become more accurate.

If you've heard some juicy scuttlebutt lately, you can share it with DiFonzo's research team here.

A bunch of gossip

While disseminating rumors helps social webs determine whether a report might or might not be true, gossip is a whole different tale.

It doesn't necessarily matter if gossip is true or not.

Its goal is to change and maintain clusters of people, either by shifting around a social structure or spreading ideas about what is normal behavior. Gossip also brings people closer together.

Gossip sounds something like this: Did you hear what Joe did at the company picnic last week?

The gossiper hints that whatever Joe did, it wasn't a good idea and his performance violates a social norm. The gossiper is also taking a risk to voice her disapproval about Joe with the listener, forming a connection between the gossiper and the listener.

"When two people share a dislike of another person, it brings them closer," said Jennifer Bosson, a professor of psychology at the University of South Florida.

Bosson studied the topic while at the University of Oklahoma and her results are published in the June issue of the journal Personal Relationships.

"If somebody is willing to risk conveying a negative impression by revealing negative attitudes about another person, it makes the listener feel like they've gotten more personal information about who the speaker really is," Bosson told LiveScience. "You can trust that they really feel that way.

Putting others down boosts self-esteem too. But you don't have to be nasty to make friends; sharing mildly unfavorable attitudes about others can be enough to hit it off.

What's the difference?

In some cases, it's difficult to tell the difference between gossip and a rumor.

Although the rumor mill eventually found the 2004 presidential candidates innocent, a previous presidential scandal drew more scrutiny.

DiFonzo points to the early leaks of President Bill Clinton's affair as an example of the public's effort to analyze his fidelity mixed with pure slanderous chatter.

"It was certainly gossipy," he said. "But many people considered it a rumor. They were earnestly trying to consider whether it was true or not."

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