why rumours can last for ages

A headline in SciTechDaily caught my eye: If I’m not gullible and you’re not gullible, how come some improbable stories take a long time to die? This reminded me of a comment by Ben Goldacre, along the lines that people aren’t as good at assessing their own abilities (whether related to driving a car or passing an exam) as they’d like to think.

But the link took me instead to a story that ran in one of the Saturday papers last weekend – why some rumours have such a long shelf life. And this is itself an interesting look at the way our minds work, & why it’s sometimes easier than you’d think to fool many of the people quite often, really.

It seems that we’re more inclined to accept stories as factual if they:

  • play on our emotions and anxieties;
  • fit with our pre-existing biases, even if the story sounds a little odd or unusual (if you have experience of someone saying something a bit dopey, you’ll be predisposed to believe something outlandish attributed to them by a third person);
  • appeal to people who are easily swayed by a story (apparently, a playground rumour about the explosive potential of a sherbert sweet combined with cola almost destroyed a confectionary product);
  • are heard so often that there just might be a grain of truth in them;
  • reflect what’s currently on people’s minds;
  • are simple, and sound ‘real’ (not abstract); are hard to disprove (look at the longevity of the Loch Ness monster story, for example);
  • and – if they reflect badly on individuals that we envy (something of the tall poppy syndrome in that one!).

And – if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is!

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