Watercooler Rumors—What’s Truth Got to Do with It?

RIT psychologist Nicholas DiFonzo explores the extraordinary power of hearsay

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Rumors and dirty politics go hand in hand to sway public opinion. Sweeping up the mess left behind requires a savvy and credible communicator who knows how to manage the rumor mill and squelch the mongering.

Rumor expert Nicholas DiFonzo credits Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama for aggressively refuting rumors on camera but gives his Web site—FighttheSmears.com—only a B.

“He’s doing some things really well, but I think he could do better,” says DiFonzo, professor of psychology at Rochester Institute of Technology and author of The Watercooler Effect: A Psychologist Explores the Extraordinary Power of Rumors (Avery) due out Sept. 11.

DiFonzo—who also operates the Web site Professor Nick about all things rumor-related—prescribes the clout of a trusted, neutral third party to debunk rumors, especially for those eager to believe them; and the benefit of answering those lingering unexplained questions that bother some potential voters about the origin of Obama’s middle name (Hussein) and his family’s religious beliefs.

Conversely, Sen. John McCain’s campaign adroitly used a neutral third party—in this case McCain’s lawyer, a Democrat—to stamp out the rumor of an inappropriate relationship with an attractive lobbyist, DiFonzo says.

In The Watercooler Effect, DiFonzo shares with a general audience other ideas about rumors, those unverified statements of doubtful information that circulate around office watercoolers and coffee pots, and anywhere people congregate. An overview, excerpts and a reading guide are available at The Watercooler Effect.

“This book explores why people believe rumors, what they are, how people spread them, where they spread them and why the spread them, and other questions related to the phenomenon of rumor—such as how they change over time,” DiFonzo says.

Using colorful stories and examples, DiFonzo differentiates rumor from its “close cousins”—urban legend and gossip—and provides useful tools for spotting and deflating rumors.

“For the longest time I’ve wanted to give away the nuggets of knowledge that have been building up about rumor,” DiFonzo says. “The Watercooler Effect communicates the latest and most thorough sets of ideas about rumors that exist. I think people will find it helpful and useful.”

Rochester Institute of Technology is internationally recognized for academic leadership in computing, engineering, imaging technology, and fine and applied arts, in addition to unparalleled support services for students with hearing loss. Nearly 16,000 full- and part-time students are enrolled in more than 200 career-oriented and professional programs at RIT, and its cooperative education program is one of the oldest and largest in the nation.

For nearly two decades, U.S. News & World Report has ranked RIT among the nation’s leading comprehensive universities. The Princeton Review features RIT in its 2007 Best 361 Colleges rankings and named the university one of America’s “Most Wired Campuses.” RIT is also featured in Barron’s Best Buys in Education.

Note: Audio available for this story