Friday, May 4, 2012


"Bless your soul, you've got your head in the clouds,
You made a fool outta me, and boy you're bringing me down.
You made my heart melt, yet I'm cold to the core,
But rumour has it I'm the one you're leaving her for."

In literary studies, I'm a comparatist by training, and that means that I think in terms of odd juxtapositions.  

I've spent the semester studying Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, and one of the things I've always been fascinated by in that novel is the role of rumors.  Adele's "Rumour Has It" has been running through my head for the past day or so, providing the soundtrack to my thoughts on the subject.

(I can't help but think that it's Grushenka's theme song, really.  If you know the novel, you know what I'm talking about.)

In Dostoevsky's novels, rumors are everywhere (Gary Saul Morson notes this in his essay, "Paradoxical Dostoevsky").  People talk trash about other people.  People say that so-and-so is going to do such-and-such, even though they don't even know the people in question.  Speculation runs wild.

Just 'cause I said it, it don't mean that I meant it,
People say crazy things.
Just 'cause I said it, don't mean that I meant it,
Just 'cause you heard it...

And Dostoevsky's narrator in The Brothers Karamazov continually comments on the prevalence of rumors: he'll repeatedly include competing versions of events and competing explanations for their occurrence, making no effort to distinguish "fact" from "fiction" in his... fiction.

Why is this?  Given the complexity of Dostoevsky's ideas, ideologies, and aesthetics, I can only hazard a couple of guesses here (as I did elsewhere, in "Intention, Paradox, Process"), but I think his fascination with the function of rumor has to do with his fascination with issues of intention, motivation, and--ultimately--faith.

Rumors hinge on maintaining belief despite a lack of clear-cut, transparent evidence.  So, too, does religious faith.  So it's odd, but not surprising, that Dostoevsky meditates on the former in his depiction of the latter.

In 1947, psychologists Gordon W. Allport and Leo Postman posited "the basic law of rumor."  In The Psychology of Rumor, they developed a formula to quantify the rate at which rumors will spread: 

R ~ i X a

Or, in plain English, the strength of a rumor (R) will vary according to the importance of the subject to the individuals involved (i) times the ambiguity (a) of the pertinent evidence.

If the evidence is ambiguous but the topic strikes a chord, the rumor will circulate like wildfire.


Unfortunately, there is no empirical data to support this abstract (and admittedly compelling) formulation.  You might say that it's a rumor that there even is a "basic law of rumor."  It hasn't been proven.

There are simply too many variables left unconsidered by Allport and Postman's hypothesis.  

Contemporary social psychologists focus on the blind spots in Allport and Postman's law.  They argue that more attention must be paid to the generators and the receivers of rumors: not just how rumors spread, but who spreads them--and to whom.  And why.

Although it may sound strange, social psychologists will conduct experiments in which they plant a rumor and watch to see what happens.  In the 1950's Stanley Schachter and Harvey Burdick planted a rumor in a girls' prep school:  "exams were missing."

They then arranged for a girl to be abruptly taken out of class two days later.  Although the rumor about the exams was completely fabricated (and thus the treatment of the girl had nothing to do with anything), rumors spread twice as fast in the class in which the girl was removed, as they did in the other classes.

Thank God they didn't say, "Someone's pregnant."  (Although I think we can all imagine a tangled grapevine in which it's only a short step from the harmless rumor to a less-than-harmless alternative.)  As the Veggie Tales song about the "Rumor Weed" warns children,

So, what's a rumor? 
It starts a story, maybe it's true, maybe not,
But once you repeat it, it's hard to defeat it
Now look at the mess that you've got.

Ralph Rosnow, one of the foremost researchers in the social psychology of rumor, has noted the role that anxiety and uncertainty play in the generation and promulgation of rumor: often, rumors rationalize and justify our emotional interests, and those rationalizations and justifications become more compelling when our world is in flux--or in chaos.

Rumors can be deliberate or spontaneous; they can serve to promote malicious gossip or leak corporate secrets.  They can be directed against something or someone perceived as threatening, or they can function as coping mechanisms in the face of haphazard events or disasters.

Sometimes, they function as a form of wish fulfillment: hence, the continued claims that (wise, benevolent) aliens from outer space have landed, but our governments won't tell us about them.

Sometimes, they function in a more negative visionary capacity: hence, the continued claims that (angry, malevolent) aliens from outer space have landed, but our governments won't tell us about them.

In both cases, the rumors, whether true or false, serve an emotional purpose: they alleviate anxiety.  (If it seems counter-intuitive to suggest that the idea of evil aliens alleviates anxiety, consider the fact that such an explanation can allow individuals to consider themselves as more perceptive than the masses around them and as united against a common enemy.)

A lot of work remains to be done in the field of rumor psychology, of course: memes, mass media and the internet offer a variety of new complications to consider.

In Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, characters continually wrestle with the question of what, exactly, to believe.  While this existential dilemma is ostensibly played out in the dialogues between Ivan and Alyosha (and, to some extent, Smerdyakov), Dostoevsky shows its relevance at all levels of human discourse and motivation.

Everyone is always trying to figure out what the "real" story is. 

And contrary to the wisdom imparted in the Veggie Tales, I don't think Dostoevsky simply dismisses rumors as pernicious weeds.  Untruths may tell a different kind of truth--to the discerning eye, they may indicate our greatest causes for concern, our cultural, philosophical, and emotional anxieties.  Taken in the aggregate, they may shade in a sense of what it is we want to believe, what we're afraid may not be true.

Rumors empower us in ways we cannot understand or control, and to this extent, they are not unlike the criminal impulses that Dostoevsky finds so fascinating.

Why do we do it?  No, really.  Why?

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."