Why denying rumors may make things worse.

Yesterday, I heard a caller on a right wing radio show claim that all these Muslim gas station owners may just switch off their electricity and bring the US to a halt.  To my horror, the show’s hosts encouraged the thought and raised the question of whether Obama is a Manchurian candidate.  What does his money come from?  Buying him the presidency would be much cheaper than a nuclear war.

What to do?  Deny it all?

Consider a real case:  There was a rumor about the ingredients in McDonald’s hamburgers, and it was pretty disgusting.  We’re talking red worms. 

Now suppose McDonald’s had started running commercials emphatically denying that they use red worms.  There are a number of reasons why this might well not help.  For example, many people would  expect that they’d deny it whether or not it was true.   A campaign might also serve to inform people who had never heard  the rumor.

Worse, they may reinforce an association in our minds between their hamburger’s and red worms.  A lot of the power of a lot of rumors has to do with the implicit associations they set up, and those associations can get strengthened by affirmations or denials.   

 We’ve learned an enormous amount about people’s belief-forming habits over the last 20-30 years, and the idea that many of us are attracted to – the mind is something like a word processor with a logic check and easy systematic edit functions – is  totally unsuited to the real world.

Relatedly, we can, of course, be rational, but actually revising beliefs in the light of five minute presentation of evidence is much more rare than one might think.  And all sorts of associations can remain that will reinstitute the beliefs.

SO WHAT CAN YOU DO?  Well, I worry Obama’s rumor denial web site may be doing more damage than good.  There’s a page that gives a lot of space to the idea that his wife is a radical racist; it even locates her bad statement in that church (and we all know…) in some sort of Women’s Session (omigod, shades of Hillary).  Of course all this is accompanied by denials and the word “Lie.”  But we’ve also got a pretty clear picture that fits in with other association.  Perhaps it might be more affective to blanket the country with clips of sweet Michelle and children relating lovingly to moms and kids of different races.  Perhaps best of all would be getting extremely good management consultants in.  From the corporate world!

It seems generally agreed that John Kerry was very mistaken in not responding to the swift boat rumors.  But saying “Kerry is not a coward and he is not a liar” might not help at all.  Showing him in Viet Nam (regarding which we all have negative associations anyway) saying he is not a coward (right, like we know some were even murdering civilians) might have done real harm.  Perhaps an extensive positive campaign would have helped, but I don’t have the experience or expertise to offer really good advice.

In any case, having been in a ‘faculty leadership role’ on a stressed-out campus awash in rumors, I spent some time a few years ago going through management  literature on all this; it was clear that most experts thought repeating rumors, if only to deny them, was a bad idea.  Jender’s remark  here  led me to  go back and checkmore recent work.  A quick glance this morning at what Amazon.com makes available from Allan Kimmel’s Rumor and Rumor Control reinforced the idea that denials seldom work and are not to be encouraged.  I think there is an exception for the occasions when the topic is one that can be dealt with just rationally.  E.g., there’s a rumor about that there will be a sale at a certain store.  But don’t count on it.

(And before anyone takes me to task:  My examples just try to draw on the kind of associations I reckon some ads try to exploit; I don’t mean to diss Michelle, our troops, etc. And the red worm example is in Kimmel)

Added later:  It isn’t that there is nothing one can do about rumors.  But the best strategy is not necessarily what seems right to our common sense.  Probably doing things like combating negative rumors with prositive images is a help, but handling rumors on a national level is a whole lot harder than we might naturally think.