You've probably been there. The TV host alleges a government cover-up. You see a post on Facebook about all the Disney movies are secretly linked. Or at work, people stand around the break room talking about what upper management is really up to with their closed door meetings. Whatever the form of conspiracy theory or gossip is that's flying, people typically spread the rumors for the same reasons.
1. We feel vulnerable if we don't know why something is happening.
People often try to cope with difficult events through rationalization and an examination of what led up to whatever happened. The underlying idea behind that process is that, if we can just understand the purpose or chain of events, we can better determine our risk of rejection, protect ourselves or make a moral judgment about the event or those involved. So when we don't have a good explanation for something, we make up an explanation to maintain a sense of peace, self-esteem, order and control.
2. We don't want to look foolish.
Sure, there's a chance that the conspiracy theory or rumor floating around the water cooler might not be true. But what if it is? What if, because we're not willing to believe, we miss opportunities or suffer other loss (e.g., financial)? We go along with the crowd because we want to be insiders who, in the end, are able to avoid ridicule and come out ahead.
3. We want to be entertained.
One element of conspiracy theories or gossip is getting new information or updates. Having continuing stories to tell breaks the monotony we often feel, leaving us imagining what's coming next or what the resolution will be. And the more animated or emotional the person spreading the conspiracy or gossip is in the storytelling, the more fun it is to watch and listen.
4. Our ability to analyze is limited.
As social and organizational psychologist Jan-Willem van Prooijen asserts, people who are less educated tend to believe conspiracy theories and gossip more, both because they don't think as analytically, and because they don't feel as in control of their environment as more educated individuals. But this certainly doesn't mean that educated people are immune from believing conspiracies and rumors. Big data, technology and increased social demands, for example, can overwhelm even educated people to the point where they have difficulty checking facts and, subsequently, believe what they're hearing over time.
More data is not the solution
You might think that access to more information would put much of the conspiracy theory and gossip problem to bed, but giving people more data doesn't always work. It fails because people don't like to be proven wrong and, as a result, have a tendency to seek out information that's in line with what they already feel or believe (confirmation bias). Not only that, but science has proven that, the more something is repeated, the more people think and maintain that it's true, even when they have facts that prove otherwise. Research also shows that people will find false patterns in data, simply because the brain naturally wants to assign structure even if there isn't any.
So what do you do?
The main drivers of conspiracies and gossip all connect back to feelings of fear, alienation and powerlessness, as well as boredom. To really solve the issue and halt the rumors, you have to dismantle the defense mechanisms those feelings create, teaching the gossiper how to use data the proper way.
- Convince the believer/gossiper they can trust you. Transparency and empathy are your biggest weapons here.
- Give people more opportunities to express themselves or have their opinions heard. Make the gathering, review and implementation of others' ideas a regular part of the operational process.
- Offer encouragement and praise as appropriate to help the gossiper see that you recognize and value what they can do.
- Present opportunities for individual or team advancement.
- Ask others how they are doing, making a genuine effort to learn about and support them as individuals.
- Encourage people to provide high-quality sources.
- Offer tools, classes or training that help individuals develop critical thinking and debate skills.
- Present verifiable data quickly, often and in simple-to-understand terms. Repeat the truth, then repeat it again.
- Use personal anecdotes to support the truthful information you have. People are more likely to believe and remember facts with a story connected, because they can connect emotionally to what's told instead of just dealing with cold data.
- Don't keep business all business. Have some fun (e.g., company parties, pool in the break room) and let people take on challenging stretch projects that appeal to their individual interests.
Importantly, don't underestimate counseling services. The more people can talk through what they think and are afraid of, the more likely they are to move forward with logic, fairness and cooperation.