Blog: Ask Professor Nick

Interview on the Exchange

Wednesday, 9/17/08. John Pemble hosts The Exchange. His guest is author Nicholas DiFonzo, author of the book, The Watercooler Effect. They discuss how rumors occur, why people believe them, and the big effects that rumors can have on society.

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2008 Election Rumors | NY Post Article

Read my brief analysis of the 2008 Election rumors in this NY Post article (Sunday September 14, 2008).

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Wisconsin Public Radio

Interview with Joy Cardin, Friday, 9/12/2008, 6:00 AM,

…easy to believe… tough to silence… After six, Joy Cardin and her guest takes a look at rumors… why we believe them… why we spread them… and how they affect our behavior.

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The Watercooler Effect | What’s truth got to do with it?

Interview at Rochester Institute of Technology, August 2008, with Susan Galowicz and Michael Saffran.

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The John Batchelor Show

Interview on the John Batchelor Show, Sunday September 7, 2008.

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Word of Mouth | NH Public Radio

The Watercooler Effect, Interview on Word of Mouth, New Hampshire Public Radio, Monday September 8, 2008.

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Professor Nick on “Connect with Karen”

Connect With Karen Online on

Thursday, September 11 – 6 PM EST

Join Karen as she interviews

Nicholas DiFonzo, Psychologist author of:

“The Watercooler Effect: A Psychologist Explores the Extraordinary Power of Rumors”

Join the conversation by calling 914-338-1033 during the show

All interviews are then replayed on

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Inaccuracy of Anonymous Gossip Sites

[From an excellent former student of mine]

Greetings, Professor–

I hope this note finds you well. Congratulations (a little in advance) on your new book–it’s quite the testament to the significant body of knowledge you’ve acquired via your research. While reading RIT’s news, I happened across an article about your blog at and thought I’d send you an article you may find of interest.

The piece discusses JuicyCampus, a website where students post anonymous comments about their schoolmates (link to Businessweek article). One view is that posters’ comments are slanderous and inappropriate (from both decency and legal perspectives); the other is that posters are simply exercising their free speech. I’m interested in your take on the rumor aspect of it: Do you believe the site’s anonymity encourages students to post true statements or false ones? Could rumors posted on the site serve as a way for students to ‘get back’ at classmates?


[former student]

Hi [former student],

Thanks for the congratulations, and the question–it was an interesting one.

My takes: First, anonymity in this context will tend to reduce accuracy. The general principle is that when people are in not held accountable for what they say, they will have less regard for the truth. Other motives–malicious glee, entertainment, self-enhancement, acheivement of strategic goals–are then less constrained by the facts. Conversely, those whose words are examined closely will be more careful about what they convey. Journalists, for example, are better at getting the story straight than bloggers; the difference is that journalists are held to a high standard by their editors. I wouldn’t bet money on anything that juicycampus produces.

Second, I do think the site provides an opportunity for students to maliciously harm other students (as well as satisfy a number of other base motives). In my research group, we have come to call this a “malicious glee” motive. In unpublished research I did with Prashant Bordia, this motive predicted the whether or not a particpant was likely to spread a negative rumor about a boss. When motivated to harm the boss (we asked them to imagine that he had treated them unfairly), they were much more likely to spread the rumor than when not so motivated.

We are accustomed to the right to face our accusers directly (see the 6th Amendment to the US Constitution). One reason behind this idea is that it encourages a fair and open debate; the jury is better able to determine not only if the accusation is true, but what the motives are in bringing the accusation. A good system overall. Of course, that’s the difficulty with anonymous Internet gossip like this: the accuser’s identity is kept secret. Ergo, a fair and open debate about the accused alleged deeds is less likely. The site is not designed for ferreting out the facts.

Best regards,


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Obama’s Response to Rumors

In some recent interviews with press, I give the Obama campaign a high mark for his handling of false rumors. These include that he is a Muslim, that he swore his oath of Senate office on a Koran, and that he refuses to pledge allegiance to the flag. The rumors are interesting because they capitalize on Obama’s status as a relative newcomer (thus less well-known) to the national stage.

On the positive side of the ledger, he is denying them aggressively (He has stated “I am a committed Christian”; “I pledge allegiance to the flag”, etc.), he has given a context for his denial (“I am personally offended by these remarks”), has explained a motivation for there continued spread (“dirty politics”), he appears calm and believable when he states the rumor is false, and has attempted to enlist the support of people to spread the denial (“If you get this email, reply-all that it is false”). And in his interview with David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network just prior to the South Carolina Democratic Primary, he delivered a point-by-point refutation. So far so good.

The campaign website could enlist and prominently tout more help from trusted 3rd party sources. A March 27 Pew Research Center study found that the Obama-is-a-Muslim rumor was believed by only 10% of registered voters, but some subgroups were slightly more likely to believe it (conservative Republicans, conservative Democrats, those who did not attend college, voters from South & Midwest, rural voters, and white evangelical Protestants). P&G, for example, used this strategy effectively when it enlisted the help of Rev. Jerry Falwell and Billy Graham in their “truth kits” and actively distributed them to religious groups. The Obama campaign does have a letter from some religious leaders buried deep on the campaign website; In my opinion, more of these types of letters are needed, especially if the sources are regarded as trustworthy by the above populations. And again, they need to be displayed more prominently; such sources can speak more persuasively than the campaign is able to because of their neutral (or even negative) stakeholder status. McCain employed this tactic effectively when combating innuendo of an inappropriate relationship with a female lobbyist by having his lawyer—a well-known Democrat—strongly defend his character on national TV.

Some may fear that addressing the rumors “dignifies” them and will give them more credence. The research on rumor refutation doesn’t support that idea. Others may object that those people who believe them are immune to any evidence. Undoubtedly there are some people who are immune to evidence and explanation, but no-one knows how large this group is. So these strategies will be for those who are open to explanation.

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Dread Internet Rumors

Professor DiFonzo,

I’m a graduate student at [a] Journalism School. I’m currently researching a paper on internet rumor, and read your 2004 article in the Social Psychology Quarterly. I’m interested to hear if you’ve done further research in the area since then along with your views on the rise of sites such as Facebook. In your 2004 piece, you also mentioned that people were, generally speaking, more hesitant (at the outset at least) to spread a ‘dread’ rumor than a ‘wish’ one; I wonder if you think this is still the case, or whether things have changed somewhat.

Many thanks for your time.


[Graduate Student in Journalism]

Dear Graduate Student in Journalism:

Facebook and sites like these offer a great way to study the network on which many rumors flow. Bernard Brooks, a math professor at Rochester Institute of Technology, and his student David Longo collected data on Facebook sites at RIT (5222 people) and have mapped the network. We plan to simulate rumor flow over this network. Here is a personal network from within that collection:

Among the interesting findings from this research is that the average number of “steps” from one Facebook page to another in this network was between 3 and 4. This is an example of the well-known small-world effect (a network is more tightly connected than we would ordinarily suppose given the number of people in the network).

One’s hesitation about spreading a dread rumor generally stems from the reluctance to spread bad news–no-one likes to be the bearer of bad tidings. However, when the recipient is a friend and that bad news may bear upon him or her, people tend to be more likely to spread the dread rumor. So friendship may moderate the tendency to spread dread versus wish rumors. If you are interested in dread rumors, be sure to read Walker, C. J., & Blaine, B. (1991). The virulence of dread rumors: A field experiment. Language and Communication, 11, 291-297.

Hope this helps!


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