Rumors and Urban Legends Term Paper

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Rumors and urban legends are important forms of communication within any society. They are both recognized as non-standard forms of information transmission between members of a social group. Although they may be accepted social phenomena, research about either form of communication is limited due to the elusive nature of rumors or urban legends (Bordia & Rosnow, 1998). Rumors and urban legends are difficult to observe naturally and are hard to study within a laboratory setting because duplicating real life conditions in a lab in difficult. These difficulties arise because rumors and urban legends can move through a society nearly undetected. They can travel almost completely unnoticed along social networks. Individuals within a social group can often time pass along a rumor or urban legend without conscious awareness of their actions (Miller, 1992). Because of these characteristics, psychological researchers are often challenged in finding methods that can be employed to obtain empirical data about these phenomena.

Throughout the literature of the study of rumors, different methods have been utilized to try to measure the transmission of rumors and urban legends. Often times, these various methods have lead to the development of different theories about rumors. Even so, the interest and research in rumors has grown during recent years. Mass communication, in general, has proven to be a breeding ground for new rumors. The invention of the television and the Internet has provided a new age for the transmission of rumors (Bordia & Rosnow, 1998). These new forums have made rumors more widespread and more accessible by the public. As a result, the study of rumors has become more diversified to meet the growing demand. General theories about rumors and rumor transmission have been used to answer other questions about the behavior of rumors. These questions about the behavior and transmission of rumors and urban

legends are gradually being answered as the study of these events progresses.

The study of urban legends as a unique occurrence is a rare phenomenon in available literature. Most of the literature groups urban legends under the title of rumor along with folklore, myth, legend, and gossip (Shibutani, 1966; Heath, Bell, & Sternberg, 2001). Because most literature fails to suggest any substantial difference between rumors and urban legends, the majority of this review will focus on the literature surrounding the broad topic of rumor. Any notable difference affecting this proposed project or review will be noted at the conclusion of this review.

How Rumors are Transmitted

Shibutani (1966) separates rumor research into two separate categories: serial transmission and collective transmission. He bases these categories around the separate theories of rumor transmission. Each of these theories originated during World War II.

Both of these theories have been developed and expounded upon through successive generations of research. Both have made substantial contributions to current rumor research. Although both theories had similar origins, the serial theory of transmission is often given priority as being the beginning of rumor research (Shibutani, 1966).

The Serial Transmission Theory

Most early research concerning rumors began with the theories promoted by the social psychologists Gordon Allport and Leo Postman (1947). Their initial research proposed a serial reproduction model that viewed the spread of rumors as a linear process. They were the first to experimentally observe the transmission of a rumor within a laboratory environment. For their experiment, they allowed one individual to view a vague but complicated visual image. The information was then passed in a chain from one individual to another while the researchers recorded the presentation of information between each individual. Allport and Postman�s research led them to propose the theory that rumors would eventually broaden the focus of the information, but would compact the information that was being presented. In other words, rumors would try to say more within fewer words (Allport & Postman, 1947).

Allport and Postman�s (1947) research laid the basic foundation for the beliefs and concepts that would define much of the early research about rumors. The concept that rumors are a deviant form of social communication began with their research. By portraying rumors as a detrimental form of social interaction, this research placed a substantial bias on future research that contended rumors could only be false information passed along for malicious reasons (Shibutani, 1966).

Much of the basic terminology used in early rumor literature is derived from Allport and Postman (1947). The concepts of leveling, sharpening, and assimilation can all be directly attributed to the work of these researchers. �Leveling� is the tendency for a rumor to become shorter and more concise as it is passed from person to person. �Sharpening� is the tendency for an individual to only remember certain specific details from an account given to them. �Assimilation� is the impression that the individual hearing the rumor makes on the rumor itself. These impressions are based on the individual�s particular state of mind whenever the rumor is presented. These concepts summarize the theory suggested by these researchers and are important because of the impact that they made on the direction of rumor research (Allport & Postman, 1947).

Allport and Postman provided theories that were applied and expounded upon by other researchers who were studying rumors during the World War II era (Caplow, 1947; Kirkpatrick, 1932). One observational study from this time period collected data about rumors being transmitted within a military regiment stationed in the South Pacific (Caplow, 1947). This research supported Allport and Postman�s assumption that rumors traveled in a linear fashion. Following strict observational techniques, Caplow and his researchers were able to put together maps of the individual progression made by a rumor throughout the regiment. Their observations were so precise that they would, on occasion, be able to predict the pattern of transmission that a rumor would follow. They also found evidence to support Allport and Postman�s theory that rumors compact information rather than expand on it. Caplow observed that individuals who were known to exaggerate a rumor or tell rumors that were unbelievable were often left out of the rumor chain of transmission. Caplow was able to observe that rumors within a social group have the capacity to move at tremendous speeds and can often reach the most distant members of a group in only a short amount of time (Caplow, 1947).

The serial transmission theory was also used as a basis for a psychoanalytical theory of rumor transmission. Jung�s (1959) theory of rumor transmission suggests that individuals pass on particular rumors to fulfill their own unconscious desires. His theory explained that the exaggeration that occurs with most rumors is the result of individuals placing their own desires within a rumor. His theories are based on observations he made about rumors circulating in a girl�s school about an affair between a student and a teacher at the school. Jung said that this rumor was successfully circulated because it tapped into the unconscious desires of many of the students who attended that school (Jung, 1959).

Although the serial transmission theory is thought to be the basis for most early rumor research, a substantial amount of criticism has been lodged against it (Bordia & DiFonzo, 2002; Heath et al., 2001; Miller, 1992). The general consensus of this criticism is that the serial transmission theory has been obtained through laboratory experiments that are too sterile. The theory is also criticized because it is not applicable to the larger �public opinion� that defines a rumor outside the laboratory, and because its unilateral explanation of rumor transmission does not take into account the natural bilateral communication that occurs when rumors are transmitted (Peterson & Gist, 1951). Finally, the serial transmission theory is criticized for not objectively defining the processes it intended to measure. Allport and Postman (1947) defined rumor as a deviant form of communication. By labeling a rumor deviant or abnormal, these researchers suggest that normal communication should always be based on truthful, well-founded information. By Allport and Postman�s definition, most communication should be labeled deviant because it is rarely based on solid, indisputable facts (Shibutani, 1966).

Collective Transmission Theory

Shibutani (1966) defines the second major category of rumor transmission as being the collective transmission theory. According to this theory, rumor transmission is not the result of individual interactions, but exists as a form separate from these interactions. Rumor transmission becomes a collective process in which multiple individuals make selective contributions toward the success of a rumor as a whole. Each person may have a specific motivation for continuing a rumor, but the process cannot be defined by an individual motivation (Shibutani, 1966).

Shibutani (1966) also defines the specific group roles individuals may play when

spreading a rumor from group to group. The first role is the messenger or individual who

brings the rumor to the group. Once the group is aware of the rumor, members may

either be interpreters who try to evaluate the rumor, skeptics who doubt the rumor, or

protagonists and agitators who support either side of the argument. Most group

members will simply be auditors who listen but say little. The final role is the decision- maker who decides between the separate arguments proposed by the protagonists and agitators (Shibutani, 1966).

One of the first theorists that helped define the collective transmission theory was Jamuna Prasad (1935). He observed the transference of rumors after a massive earthquake struck Northern India. He did not focus on the individual, but rather on the social forces that influenced the spread of rumors. He categorized his theory into two levels of influence: the micro-level influences and the macro-level influences. According to Prasad, micro-level influences were social influences on the individual. These influences included anxiety about a social situation, uncertainty about the outcome of the situation, and the public concern surrounding the situation. His theorized that macro-level influences were social influences that affected society in general. These influences included the content of a specific rumor and the distortion that occurred during the transmission of the rumor (Prasad, 1935). Although Prasad provided a logical argument for his theory, his ideas were not widely accepted in Europe or the United States. Prasad�s Asian background provided him the insight to explore social influences while Western psychologists were still exploring the individualistic theories of serial transmission. Consequently, Prasad is given little credit as the beginning of the collective theory of transmission (Bordia &DiFonzo, 2002).

Peterson and Gist (1951) became the first rumor researchers to make significant contributions to the collective transmission theory. As the basis of their theory, they carefully observed the types of rumors that surfaced after a young girl was murdered in a small mid-western community. From this research, they theorized that rumors are often transmitted in a bilateral fashion. Instead of placing an emphasis only on the communicator, they suggested that both the communicator and the receiver could have an affect on the information contained within a rumor. They also proposed that this method of communication would more likely lead to rumors becoming more exaggerated, instead of becoming more concise as Allport and Postman had suggested. Their research supported their theories by providing numerous examples of rumors being exaggerated to extreme proportions (Peterson and Gist, 1951).

The collective theory of transmission has become the dominant theory in current research (Miller, 1992; Heath et al., 2001). Researchers often vary between the amount of emphasis they place upon the individual interaction and the interactions of the group as a whole, but almost all current research gives the collective theory priority. For example, Borida and Rosnow (1998) performed a series of observations that studied a rumor discussion group on an Internet website. They concluded that rumor development could be seen as a type of group interaction because they were able to define members who exhibited the qualities that where outlined earlier from Shibutani�s (1966) theory. These members followed patterns of interactions similar to those that Shibutani described for groups exposed to rumors. Borida and Rosnow felt it was necessary to establish that even though these events took place on the Internet, these individuals still acted as a group when discussing the current rumor that had distressed them. By emphasizing the group-like tendencies displayed by this Internet rumor discussion group, they exemplified how the collective transmission theory is being used in current research (Borida & Rosnow, 1998).

Who Transmits Rumors

While many early theorists were debating how rumors were transmitted among a population, other researchers were studying which individuals were most likely to transmit a rumor. Allport and Lepkin (1945) conducted a massive survey to discover what influenced an individual to believe and transmit a rumor. They focused on rumors of excessive waste and privilege that were prominent during the rationing era of World War II. They found that rumor transmission was based on knowledge, experience, and personal involvement. Individuals who were educated about the subjects pertaining to a given rumor were less likely to repeat or believe the rumor. Individuals who had had negative experiences with the issues included in the rumor were more likely to believe and repeat the rumor then those who had had positive experiences. Also, those who were personally or emotionally involved with the subject matter discussed in the rumor were less likely to believe it. They theorized that when these issues where controlled, the most influential factor impacting rumor repetition would be simply hearing the rumor. Their research suggested that the more times a person heard a rumor, the more likely they were to believe it (Allport & Lepkin, 1945).

When are Rumors Transmitted

Sometimes it is not so much who transmits the rumors, but when they are transmitted. There are several theories that suggest when rumors are more likely to occur. These theories typically depend on the stage of rumor research from which they are taken. Early rumor research typically follows one set of theories, while more current research follows an entirely different set.

Theories of Early Rumor Research

Many of the earlier theoretical models suggest that rumor is a product of a society that is experiencing a time of unrest (Allport and Postman, 1947; Prasad, 1935). This early research coincides with the earlier belief that rumors were a type of deviant behavior. It suggests that rumors are most frequent during times of civil unrest. Any time tensions are high and information is scarce, rumors will inevitably begin to circulate (Prasad, 1935).Research done by Schachter and Burdick (1955) agrees with this theory. These researchers interviewed a number of college students concerning headlines they had planted in the schools newspaper. Their experiment had been designed to determine whether rumors require civil unrest, such as earthquakes or war, or simply social unawareness. Their data suggested that anytime information is not readily available, rumors will began to circulate.

This early research is criticized for being one-dimensional (Heath et al., 2001). These critics argued that these theories fail to address situations where rumors occur without social unrest and completely ignore rumors that are positive rather than negative. They felt that these theories offered a very incomplete picture of rumors and their affect on society. Because of this heavy criticism, later researchers formed theories that differed significantly from their predecessors.

Theories of Later Research

As a response to earlier research, current rumor researchers have created new theories to explain when rumors are transmitted (Heath et al., 2002, Miller 1992). These theories view rumors as both positive and negative social forces (Miller, 1992). They also suggest that rumors can occur in periods that are not characterized by high levels of social unrest (Heath et al., 2002). Miller�s (1992) theory of rumor transmission states that rumors are transmitted as a form of social bonding. According to Miller�s theory, the subject of the rumor is rather obsolete, because the real value of the rumor is the social cohesion it creates within a group. Other research (Bordia & Rosnow, 1998) echoes Miller�s findings. Many current researchers view rumors as positive social interactions, rather than viewing rumors as strictly deviant behavior. Research has also suggested that rumors are not limited to times of high social unrest (Heath et al., 2002). These theories put forward that rumors occur naturally within a society. They also recognize that rumors are not always negative. Like other current research, it breaks away from the idea that rumors are deviant behavior, and proposes that rumors are a reflection of the emotional level of the public (Heath et al., 2002).


One of the final steps that current research has made is to form tentative definitions that separate rumors from urban legends. Different theories have created different degrees of separation between the two (Miller, 1992; Heath, 2001). One current belief is that rumors and urban legends are really no different in structure or function (Miller, 1992). Miller proposed that the only legitimate difference between the two would be their pattern of appearance. Miller defined rumors as information that was relevant to a specific area at a specific time, while urban legends are simply rumors that reappear at different locations over different expanses of time.

Rumors and urban legends are psychological and social phenomena that garnered only mild attention in the earlier years of experimental research. While theorist like Gordon Allport (1947) lead the way with the initial largely publicized experiment on this subject, his research was soon challenged and altered. Since then, research on rumors and urban legends has continued to grow. As of now, researchers are beginning to recognize social distinctions between rumors and urban legends. In most theories, these social distinctions are deemed irrelevant and urban legends continue to be seen as subcategory for rumors (Miller, 1992).


If there are no significant differences between urban legends and rumors, previous experiments done on rumors should be similarly applicable to urban legends. It is the goal of this study to determine if this hypothesis is correct. Rumor research agrees that rumor belief is determined extensively by the amount of exposure the person receiving the rumor has had to the rumor (Peterson & Gist 1952; Allport & Lepkin 1945). If this conclusion is true for rumors, it should be true for urban legends as well. This proposed project will investigate whether or not rumors and urban legends are distinct phenomenon by applying Allport and Lepkin�s (1945) test of rumors to urban legends. If urban legends are distinct from rumors, urban legends should not become more believable when they are heard more often.



The participants for this experiment were a group of approximately thirty students taken from an Introductory Psychology course at Tennessee Wesleyan College. Since the Introductory course is a basic requirement of the college, the participants should be an even mix of majors and gender. They will be mainly freshmen students averaging about eighteen years of age.


The only materials utilized in this investigation were a survey composed of various urban legends. The survey was constructed from popular urban legends, as reported by several urban legend data bases. These data bases were taken from an experiment performed by Bordia and Rosnow (1998). Each participant ranked each urban legend according to their own personal experience with the legend. The participant was provided with a scale from one to five, with one being �unfamiliar� and five being �highly familiar.� The participant then ranked the legend according to the level of believability they felt the legend held. The provided scale ranged from one, unbelievable, to five, highly believable. The data collected from these surveys was analyzed through a basic correlation test. A negative correlation would suggest that urban legends are different from rumors in that their level of familiarity does not increase their believability. A positive correlation would suggest that rumors and urban legends are similar because their believability increases with the level of familiarity.


The students were approached within the classroom setting and were asked to complete and turn in a survey. After discussing issues of confidentiality and having the participants sign a confidentiality form, the participants were given the survey to complete. The survey consisted of a list of urban legends gathered from an urban legends database. The participants then rated their familiarity with the legend. The participants were then asked to rate their level of believability on a second scale. The survey toke approximately ten minutes to complete and was offered with the incentive of extra credit.


The results of this survey were fairly conclusive. Out of the thirty surveys given, twenty-nine of the surveys were usable. One survey was discarded due to being filled out incorrectly. The survey results were evaluated using a paired values correlation test. The paired values, or two-tailed, test was necessary to adequately evaluate the dual variables presented in this study. The results of the survey suggest that the null hypothesis, the hypothesis that no relationship exists between rumors and urban legends, was incorrect. Using a five percent statistical significance, seven out of the eleven legends tested showed some amount of statistical significance. Two urban legends (numbers two and twelve) were discarded because they had been included as true legends and, thus, held no significance toward the study. This significance suggests that some relationship does exist between a person�s familiarity with urban legends and their level of belief in that legend, thus suggesting that Allport and Lepkin�s (1945) theory of rumor transmission is also applicable to urban legends.


While this study supports past rumor research in suggesting that no fundamental difference exists between rumors and urban legends, it is important to remember that some degree of separation is still possible between the two phenomena. This survey was designed only to test one particular theory regarding the transmission of rumors. Thus, rumors and urban legends may still differ in numerous, untested variables. It is also important to remember that no conclusive decisions can be drawn from this data due to the size of the survey and the small number of participants.

Similarly, this data can also not be used to draw a direct correlation between Allport and Lepkin�s rumor study and urban legends. Even though several strong, statistically significant correlations were made, the small sample size and survey length must be taken into consideration. There were also four urban legends that showed no correlation between believability and familiarity. The first legend in the survey had a Statistical Significance value of forty-four percent. Since this value was highly dissimilar and the first item in the survey, it is possible to disregard this question due to some hesitancy or uncertainty on the part of the survey participants.

Legend number seven also received an unusually high correlation value. In retrospect, this legend was most likely a poor choice as a legend for this survey. This question dealt with the flooding of New Orleans, Louisiana was probable on improper question to use. The emotional impact of this event, coupled with the uncertainty surrounding conditions in that area, would make many stories concerning that area seem plausible even when the person is unfamiliar with the legend.

The final two legends that held unusual scores have no definitive explanation for their variance, but there are some possibilities. Both of these legends were cautionary tales concerning public safety. Placing them side by side may have increased their scores simply by proxy. It is also possible that these are the types of urban legends that may simply break the correlation between rumors and urban legends; there just is not a classification to subdivide them into yet.

In conclusion, each of these elements may or may not have had some impact on the survey. It is accepted that sample size is a key element in this survey, but other factors, such as the wording of specific legends, may also have played some part in their correlations. Other legends may have been affected by their position within the survey, or their position to one another. Irregardless of these facts, this survey still seems to suggest that some correlation exists between rumors and urban legends. Although later studies may find that some significant difference exists between the two, this study agrees with prior research in suggesting that rumors and urban legends share common characteristics.


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