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How rumors Can Wreck the Workplace
New book, The Watercooler Effect, explores the nature of rumors in the workplace and the effect they can have on employee moral and productivity. Why do we spread rumors, why do we believe them, how do they mutate, and how can we manage them?
By: Karen Ross
Exit polls indicate that certain voters in West Virginia were swayed by rumors that Barack Obama was a Muslim and his wife an atheist—despite repeated reports that these stories were false. Mothers across the country are still forwarding their kids an alarming email about a gang initiation ritual that was exposed as a hoax a decade ago.
Why are rumors so easy to believe and so tough to squelch?
In The Watercooler Effect, psychologist Nicholas DiFonzo explores the anatomy of rumors, and probes just what happens at the world’s “watercoolers.”
DiFonzo has published numerous articles, book chapters, encyclopedia entries and technical reports pertaining to the topic of rumor. He has pursued practical applications of rumor theory including how harmful rumors may be most effectively refuted. DiFonzo has a Ph.D. in Social & Organizational Psychology and is currently Professor of Psychology at Rochester Institute of Technology.
According to DiFonzo, rumors exist because humans have an intrinsic need to make sense of the world. As social beings, when we’re stymied by ambiguity, vaguely threatened by something new, or alarmed by uncertainty, our response is to talk and try to tighten up the facts. Such tightening up often involves wild speculation—
Spreading rumors has a psychological basis as well. They allow us to bond as social beings (“Did you hear that manager X is getting fired?”) and give us a forum to vent our hostility (“I’m not surprised she got that job; from what I hear she’s sleeping with the boss!”).
Naturally, rumors proliferate wherever people interact: in the workplace, on the Web, within the tight networks of ethnic and religious communities, and, of course, at the dinner table among family and friends.
While rumors are about making sense of the unknown, gossip is slightly different. DiFonzo says, “Gossip is idle—and typically derogatory … it’s a juicy tidbit of information about someone. Gossip helps people bond with, amuse, know about, exclude, and aggress against one another … Rumor is a breadcrumb in an information famine; gossip is a tasty finger food during the cocktail hour.”
The Watercooler Effect ultimately shows that a common part of our everyday lives is, upon closer inspection, a complex and profound phenomenon with powerful real-world effects. It’s packed entertaining examples, yet it’s also a deeply revealing look at a fundamental human activity.
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