PSYCHOLOGY

Book Review: 'On Rumors' by Cass R. Sunstein

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Sunday, October 11, 2009

ON RUMORS

How Falsehoods Spread, Why We Believe Them, What Can Be Done

By Cass R. Sunstein

Farrar Straus Giroux. 100 pp. $18

When most Americans hear conspiracy theories suggesting the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks were an inside job, the Holocaust never occurred or that AIDS was manufactured by doctors, they are left scratching their heads and wondering, "Seriously, who makes this stuff up?" Still, these and other wild fictions manage to take root in some circles, allowing the falsehoods to persist. Cass R. Sunstein's "On Rumors" explains how such chatter spreads and why certain tales gain traction with specific groups.

Some of Sunstein's conclusions are somewhat intuitive, such as "If a rumor cannot be made to fit with your existing stock of knowledge, it will seem ridiculous and have no force," or that a person is more likely to believe stories that are accepted by large groups of people.

But the most interesting ideas are the less predictable ones. Sunstein describes research showing that people usually do not moderate their position after hearing an opposing opinion, but rather become more extreme about their original view. And, as easy as it is to spread a rumor, it can be extremely difficult to squelch one. Attempts to correct a rumor often backfire and only cause people to believe it more deeply.

Sunstein also delves into the role the Internet plays in spreading rumors. "To an increasing degree, your silly, confused, flirtatious, angry and offensive moments, on Facebook and in email or in daily life, are subject to being recorded and stored (forever) and, potentially, mischaracterized," he writes. And because of the Web's broad reach, these tidbits can travel faster than ever before.

In revealing how easily and blindly we accept rumors, Sunstein's book is likely to make readers think twice before believing or repeating the next bit of gossip that comes through the grapevine.

-- Sarah Halzack halzacks@washpost.com


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