FOR ANYONE WHO has ever worried about the power of a vicious rumor, Barack Obama's strategy over the summer [Fight the Smears] must have seemed almost bizarre.
New research into the science of rumors suggests Obama's approach may be a sounder strategy - and the reasons why it makes sense suggest that we misunderstand both how rumors work and why they exist.
By using the tools of evolutionary theory and new approaches to mathematical modeling, researchers are drawing a clearer picture of how and why rumors spread. As they do, they are finding that far from being merely idle or malicious gossip, rumor is deeply entwined with our history as a species. It serves some basic social purposes and provides a valuable window on not just what people talk to each other about, but why.
Our brains aren't terribly adept at distinguishing people who are "actually" important from people who simply receive a lot of attention.
Other than denying a rumor that's true, perhaps the biggest mistake one can make... is to adopt a "no comment" policy: Numerous studies have shown that rumors thrive in environments of uncertainty. Considering that rumors often represent a real attempt to get at the truth, the best way to fight them is to address them in as comprehensive a manner as possible... An effective rebuttal will be more than a denial - it will create a new truth, including an explanation of why the rumor exists and who is benefiting from it.
The more vivid that replacement is, the better [stealing thunder]. When done correctly and early enough in a rumor's lifetime, it can shift the subsequent conversation in beneficial ways. Link [Italics added]
Understanding social reasoning and information exchange is absolutely critical. So many people (especially the intelligentsia) mock and ridicule the habits of 'normals' talking around the water cooler about Britney or Paris. Yet, they too gossip about their collegues, sexual misconduct, political funding decisions and so forth. Mock all you like, but these exchanges build social credibility; the more negatives you know about a highly discussed community member, the more acceptance you can get in the network. Remember that peer acceptance is critical for advancement in every profession.
Social heuristicss such as listening to rumours and including gossips in one's social circle cuts down on the amount of social cognitive processing required by individuals, freeing them to concentrate on other concerns.
The rational strategy is to offer information about individuals relevant to your superiors. Your boss must find you socially valuable to promote you. Of course pure merit can get you quite a way along the food chain. Some professions are better than others at recognising such contributions. Nevertheless, without appreciating the role of gossip, you're unlikely to be invited to the cool kids party.