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By: Andrea Sigler, PhD
President, CIMPA
rumors and the chinese philosopher
Shortly after September 11. the photo of “ the accidental tourist” began circulating around the internet – on websites and via email, The story told about a camera that was found in the rubble, and after the film was developed, a chilling photo of a tourist wearing a winter coat and backpack standing on an outdoor observation deck of the North Tower of the World Trade Center was found. An American Airlines plane, fractions of a second away from the tower, can be seen in the background.

It apparently captured the last fraction of a second of the tourist’s life . . . and also of the final moment of normalcy before the universe changed for all of us. In the blink of an eye, a beautiful autumn day was transformed into flames and terror washed over a populace unaware that it would soon be in the midst of a war.

Sharp, critical minds noted: The winter coat being worn by the tourist was far too warm for the sunny Sept. 11 day of the attack; the North Tower had no outdoor observation deck; and the plane in the background was the wrong model.

ALAS! It was just a clever photo trick. A sick joke.

But even if the picture wasn't real, the emotions it stirred up were. It is because of these emotions the photo spread rapidly around the net. Millions of people received this email in just a few hours. Most of them believed it was true.

Another email. Another rumor. Another lie.

Repeated circular references can amplify the power of rumors. “ A lie told a hundred times becomes the truth”  As the story was passed on from friend to friend, it gained credibility.

Many sites on the web acknowledge how easily rumors can be spread so easily. There are also so many real life examples. I have compiled a few of them:


"Presumed Backing."  is neatly summarized as follows: the more people approach you with a certain fact, the more likely you are to believe it is true, because you implicitly believe that there are an increasing number of "backing facts" not explicitly stated. If John tells you "Bill is gay!" and Joan tells you "Bill is gay" you may begin to believe that Bill is gay. If a third person tells you the same, your credibility in the event increases. Why? Because you presume that each person has verified this and you presume their verifications to be independent.

The interesting thing about Presumed Backing is that it can achieve critical mass. With a sufficient number of initial believers in an event, a few even relatively skeptical individuals may be won over through sheer numbers. As these skeptics fall, doubt is introduced into ever higher levels of skeptics, letting a convinced populace truly replace the presentation of facts. 

This is how rumors get started. A devious individual plants an idea into a handful of impressionable peers' heads. These together can then begin to sow doubt into the minds of the populace, and so on and so forth. Once a rumor is widespread, we often implicitly believe there to be equally wide-spread substantiation of the allegations, even when the truth may be that the ill-advised "fact" had a singular author.

Once you recognize the process of Presumed Backing, it's easy to stop. All you have to do is inquire as to the direct evidence. "Who saw Ed with another man? Are they sure they were intimate? -- asking Ed himself might not be a bad idea either. This eliminates the false assumptions about the strength of the verification undergone by your peers and will help you from contributing to rumors and other "false memes".

If you redistribute information, it is wholly your responsibility to check that information for correctness.

From: “How Thinking Goes Wrong: Twenty-five Fallacies That Lead Us to Believe Weird Things”  by Michael Shermer

Rumors begin with "I read somewhere that ... " or "I heard from someone that.…" Before long the rumor becomes reality, as "I know that…" passes from person to person. Rumors may be true but usually they are not. They do make for great tales, however. There is the legend of "The Vanishing Hitchhiker," in which a driver picks up a hitchhiker who vanishes from his car along with his jacket; locals then tell the driver that his hitchhiking woman had died that same day the year before, and eventually he discovers his jacket on her grave. Such stories spread fast and never die.

Urban legends and persistent rumors are ubiquitous. Here are a few:

bullet A woman accidentally killed her poodle by drying it in a microwave oven.
bulletPaul McCartney died and was replaced by a look-alike.
bulletGiant alligators live in the sewers of New York City.
bulletThe moon landing was faked and filmed in a Hollywood studio.
bulletThe number of stars inside the "P" on Playboy magazine's cover indicates how many times publisher Hugh Hefner had sex with the centerfold.
bulletA flying saucer crashed in New Mexico and the bodies of the extraterrestrials are being kept by the Air Force in a secret warehouse.

How many have you heard … and believed? None of them are true.


A few gullible reporters talk to a few pseudo-experts, and suddenly...

bulletLegend: experts around the world believe the Melissa virus crashed 300 of the Fortune 500 firms in March 1999. Reality: only 10-25 Fortune firms crashed when Melissa swamped the world. Another 250+ lemmings disconnected from the Internet as a precaution. Reason experts are duped: clueless reporters constantly repeat the legend in virus stories.
bulletLegend: experts around the world believe the Chernobyl virus physically destroyed up to a million PCs in Asia on 26 April 1999. Reality: the media quoted Asian computer consultants and high-ranking ministry officials who speculated wildly about the number of damaged PCs. Reason experts are duped: few non-Asian reporters & virus experts have reliable Asian sources, so everybody took the initial media reports at face value. Also, no one bothered to conduct a reliable follow-up estimate after the hysteria subsided.

From the archives of Psychology Today:

Jack Levin, Ph.D., co-author of Gossip: The Inside Scoop said. "The primary function of gossip is to help us make social comparisons. For example, if we read bad news about celebrities in the tabloids, or get into the gruesome details of our neighbor's misery, our own problems begin to pale in comparison."

It is the same thing with organizations: If you can make other organizations look bad, yours look good by comparison.,

VIRUS HOAXES: How many thousands of people have been led to believe countless virus hoaxes on the internet. Time and time again, they fall for it. I must embarrassingly admit that I once deleted a critical file from my Windows program, because someone credible emailed me that it has a virus.

High credibility sources will convince people quickly,but low credibility sources have a "sleeper effect" of more slowly changing peoples beliefs. Once someone ascribes to a belief, they tend to forget if it originated from a low credibility source.

To check if the alert you got is a hoax: 

Recorded on the office phone: True story. Names changed.
“Did you know?”
In a whisper “ Steve is sleeping with Ed”
“You’re kidding!”
“It’s true. Roy told me.
“How did Roy know?”
“Maureen told him”
Helen Chang of Stanford University wrote::
Renee is a friend of mine who calls me daily with a seemingly innocent conversation. The conversation always starts with simple inquires. Suddenly, as if possessed by some demonic force, she will insult other people and say things that I personally know to be untrue”. 
The statistics are daunting: "Two out of five girls nationwide have had sexual rumors spread about them," reports Leora Tanenbaum. The 50 women interviewed for her book on how rumors destroyed reputations were all labeled a "slut" in high school.
On his personal website, John Carpenter tries to defend his reputaton
“A number of assumptions have evolved from the Internet rumors. …It is stated that I do not know anything about psychology and am a charlatan when it comes to hypnosis not to mention claims of sexual affairs during sessions. As is true with any circulating gossip, the truth gets lost among the more interesting additions that develop naturally through distortion”. 
Paul Kenneth Glass, Ph.D, a business psychologist,  wrote
When sitting in the office one day, I overheard a conversation that disturbed me greatly.  An employee was discussing the multiple ways management was trying to keep him from getting promoted in our organization.  The information seemed to have a flavor of truth but was certainly not as extreme as this person believed.  He pointed out how the last person promoted was not as qualified as he was…, elaborated on the many others who were always trying to take his current position from him as well.  
The co-worker confronted the person with a reasonable question.  What is the evidence that supports your belief that these people are all out to get you?  The response was a rather curious one.  He stated that he overheard two other support staff discussing the President’s selection of the next regional manager being a “neat person” and one whom he finds shares the same business goals.  
Individuals who portray characteristics such as above discussed can be extremely destructive to the organization.   They 
bulletMisrepresent comments that others make (due to their reading things into something, that are not really there) 
bulletInitiate false rumors (that they most often really believe) 
bulletTend to only listen to the negative (out of context) parts of a conversation 
bulletIncite anger and distrust in someone else (with little to no evidence) 
bulletMake conclusions rapidly without checking for accuracy 


Shortly after the World Trade Center terror, some Americans urged their family and friends to avoid shopping malls on Halloween. They forwarded an email allegedly authored by a friend of a woman whose Afghani boyfriend had skipped town but not before urging her to stay off airplanes on Sept. 11 and out of malls on Halloween. The email listed the woman's employer and work phone number to provide skeptics with a way to check the veracity of the story.

In a recent seminar for MBA students, Heath, an associate professor of organizational behavior, explained that urban legends often are believed because of informational credentials, such as the phone number in the email legend above.

CONSPIRACY THEORIES: Evan G. wrote about " Social Identity Theory " where people groups tend to be enforced by derogating other groups. Bigoted behavior in America is most prevalent among unsuccessful people predisposed to looking for others to blame for their failures. 


Randy Tucker of The Cincinnati Enquirer wrote:  Behind the scenes at most major corporations, public relations officers have been waging war with a nebulous, virtually invisible, enemy for years. Their adversary has the power to bring even the biggest corporate giant to its knees with attacks that often begin with a whispered phrase, such as “I don't know if it's true, but I heard that ...”

False corporate rumors — claims commonly spread over the Internet and whose origins are almost impossible to track — have marred the reputations of such Fortune 500 companies as McDonald's, Coca-Cola and Procter & Gamble.

“It's always the successful operations that are targeted by these rumors,” said Frederick Koenig, whose book, Rumor in the Marketplace, has made him a leading authority on the topic.

Some corporate rumors have survived for decades.

bulletReccuring claims that Coca-Cola uses cocaine in its soft drink formula surfaced in the 1920s.
bulletMcDonald's has been battling rumors that its hamburgers are made with everything from worms to crushed eyeballs since the late 1970s.
bulletFor years, P&G has been the target of rumors that it's a haven for devil-worshipers because its moon-and-stars logo contains what some people claim looks like 666 — a sign of Satan.
bulletMore recently, the $40 billion consumer-products maker's Febreze fabric refresher has been rumored to kill pets. 

None of these claims has ever been verified, but that doesn't stop people from believing them and passing them on, Mr. Koenig said. And most recipients believe them. As P.T. Barnum once said, "There's a sucker born every minute and most of them live”

 “These rumors are like a (computer) virus,” said Vicky Mayer,.” It's so hard to fight, because it's so difficult to find the source of the rumor.”


All you have to do is stand near any groupings in any industry convention or trade show and you will hear all sorts of gossips. “Did you hear?”  . “This is golden – you can bet your money on it”. “I don’t know if this is true but____told me…”

That was how I first learned about news that were later sterilized and reported in meeting industry publications. Since I am not part of the “old buddies network”, I never took part in these conversations. But I have an acute sense of hearing and well-developed observation skills. I heard about who is about to divorce who, what a certain member of the Board of Directors of the meeting’s sponsoring organization is up to, who is getting fired, members’ grievances against the organization

CIMPA is not the only organization to be a victim – but it seems to have attracted the most vicious ones. Recently, we caught an email that was sent to a list containing one of our members’ names (an indication of the size of the brain of the sender) giving absolutely false, slanderous information about CIMPA. It was the first written evidence of a rumor we suspected originated from  the “old buddies network” protective of their turfs and passed around  to gullible suppliers for years. They were not pleased that a non-member of this network was encroaching in their turf and perceived competition where there existed none. It was, therefore, to their best interest to discredit CIMPA and try to hasten its demise. But CIMPA just kept growing. .

Even the press - afraid to lose advertising dollars from supporters of the old buddies, ignored us. An interesting true story: When I wrote the article, “Is Meeting Planning A Profession?”. - the editor of the magazine of a major organization called me and said he was impressed and will put my article on the cover of this organization’s magazine. We collaborated on the editing of the article for days after which he asked me to send the completed article and my photo to the organization’s office.  Two days later, he called  - embarrassed and apologetic. The head of the organization “refuses to give CIMPA a platform”.

True to the classic model, these people ignored the evidence: we had a very active online community, we were holding meetings all over the world each year, we published our own reports, checklists, newsletters and magazines. There were live, breathing humans organizing meetings who were members of CIMPA. Nobody could find a coffin had our name on it.

We quickly fired back an email with the true facts:

bulletWe are not competing with any other organization. There is no other organization in this industry that is fully developed as a functioning online community.  The size and volume of the business we do gives us as much clout as any other major organization. We are very comfortable in our own special ncihe.
bulletWe have been in existence for as long, maybe longer than many industry  organizations. But no – we did not ask for the blessings of the “Old Buddies Network.”
bulletOur membership list is open to anyone who wishes to snoop.
bulletThe International Technology, Meetings and Incentives Conference is on its 11th year.
bulletOur certification program takes 6- 12 months to complete, as opposed to the 3 hours it takes to complete any other examination in this industry. We encourage critical thinking – 80% of our examination questions are case studies as opposed to 100% multiple choice questions in other industry certification.
bulletWe have a right to be here – just like any other major organization in this industry. The “Old Buddies Network” does not own the industry – like they would prefer to have people believe. .
bullet Finally, borrowing from Mark Twain, the news of CIMPA’s death has been greatly exaggerated.

Fully aware that this is not going to make any difference in that person’s behavior, our counsel is considering filing a lawsuit.


An entry in Robert Fulford's column about gossip & the NY intellectuals that appeared in theThe National Post, July 18, 2000) read:

Elizabeth Hardwick, a talented essayist who has been among the queens of the New York intellectual world for decades, once remarked in an interview that she didn't much like talking about herself. .., she preferred "Gossip, or, as we gossips like to say, character analysis."

Yes! Character analysis! That's a fine excuse for gossip. "Social history" is a pretty nice explanation too, but "the desire to understand one's fellow humans in all their complexity" is probably the best: It nicely mixes intellectual ambition, sympathy and utter pomposity.

"He's a vicious gossip, you're a charming storyteller,  I'm a ... social historian."


Helio Fred Garcia, Adjunct Associate Professor of Management and Communications at New York University wrote:

During World War II two Harvard University psychologists - Allport and Postman - studied wartime rumors and came up with a mathematical formula that described the way a rumor works and suggested ways to control or eliminate a rumor. They published their findings in a 1947 book, The Psychology of Rumor. Allport and Postman define a rumor as follows: 

A rumor is a specific proposition for belief, passed along from person to person, usually by word of mouth, without secure standards of evidence being present. …we cannot always decide easily whether we are listening to fact or fantasy.

The Allport- Postman Model of Rumor Dynamics:  R ~ i x a

R is the reach, intensity, duration, and reliance on a rumor;
i is the importance of the rumor to the hearer or reader, if true; and

a is the level of ambiguity or uncertainty surrounding the rumor

In other words, the reach, intensity, duration, and reliance on a rumor is roughly equivalent to the importance one attaches to the rumor if true, multiplied by ambiguity surrounding the rumor, especially surrounding its denial. To over-simplify: If you reduce the I and a factor to zero , you would have killed the rumor. 

It is not easy to kill rumors.  Rumor specialist Gary Fine, professor of sociology at Northwestern University suggests that schools set up rumor clinics. It is not a bad idea to set these up in meetings and conventions too

But we can only probably get lasting results by developing critical thinking in all association members. Unfortunately, this is a skill not many have mastered. Psychologist Barry Singer has demonstrated that when given the task of selecting the right answer to a problem after being told whether particular guesses are right or wrong, people:

A. Immediately form a hypothesis and look only for examples to confirm it.

B. Do not seek evidence to disprove the hypothesis.

C. Are very slow to change the hypothesis even when it is obviously wrong.

D. If the information is too complex, adopt overly-simple hypotheses or strategies for solutions.

E. If there is no solution, if the problem is a trick and "right" and "wrong" is given at random, form hypotheses about coincidental relationships they observed. Causality is always found. (Singer and Abell 1981, p. 18)

Scientific and critical thinking does not come naturally. It takes training, experience, and effort, as Alfred Mander explained in his Logic for the Millions: "Thinking is skilled work. It is not true that we are naturally endowed with the ability to think clearly and logically -- without learning how, or without practicing. People with untrained minds should no more expect to think clearly and logically than people who have never learned and never practiced can expect to find themselves good carpenters, golfers or pianists"

When presented with hearsays and rumors, we must ask:

bulletWhat is the evidence?
bulletWhat are the facts?

Critical thinkers don't invent answers when there are none.

What hurts you more is not what you don't know but what you know that isn't so.


A wise Chinese philosopher once wrote, “ Some people say: I have heard something from Master Li, and people surround them to listen. Such a person passes the hearsay with his own interpretations and embroiders it.. What is the purpose?”

I have no clue, Master Li. I suspect in some cases, there is no purpose- just idle minds that have nothing else to pre-occupy them. Sometimes, they are show-offs trying to impress people. By making others look bad, they think they are making themselves look good.  Sometimes, they are malicious., intending to harm their enemies. But what if they are spreading false information about someone who is not an enemy – whom they do not even know and about whom they, in fact, have no information? I am clueless.  

December 7 - 10, 2011 -- Albuquerque, NM
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