By Dr Jyots Bhattacharjee
The dictiory meaning of rumour is some assertion of doubtful accuracy. It is a kind of tittle-tattle. A rumour is a form of communication, which is not only interesting in itself, but also is an important means by which various kinds of collective behaviour is produced. To grip the attention of the people it must have some topic of interest. A rumour may be defined as an unconfirmed communication transmitted from person to person, usually in a situation of stress or anxiety. That is, when somebody suffers from some tension or apprehension, rumour becomes more effective in the weak and troubled mind of the person concerned.
Psychologist Young in his “Handbook of Social Psychology” has summarized the chief characteristics of rumour as follows:
“Rumour is a special kind of suggestion or story about real or fictitious person or event which grows as it spreads. Beginning as simple facts or suppositions, rumours may be in times elaborated into highly emotiol stories of great significance”. From the statement we realise that rumour begins as simple fact, but it becomes more complex as it spreads. It is a suggestion about some person or persons, real or imagiry. Actually rumour has little basis, But it grows in an alarming way with imagiry additions. To be effective a rumour gets highly colourful and it is spread by somebody or the other in a language of high suggestibility with large doses of intense emotions. The message in a rumour is an unverified account and may be neither true nor false. It is only a claim to truth. Often a mountain is made out of a molehill in rumour.
Sometimes there may be a simple fact, which is magnified with fertile imagition and given the colour of truth. The genesis of rumour is anxiety and tension and influenced by emotion it is exaggerated and dramatized. Very rapidly it grows and becomes the talk of all. In passing from person to person the origil story is distorted and assumes the form of sufficient dimension, each becomes totally different from the origil story. Imagition lends colour to the origil tale, which becomes highly colourful by being enlarged by the creativity of the rumour promoter. The topic of the rumour may be anything or anybody. It may also be publicized to humiliate or to discredit somebody. But again, a rumour may be established to boost the image of some leader favoured person. So a rumour may have both a positive and negative aspect.
The essentials of rumour are importance and ambiguity. The extent of rumour circulation thus varies with the importance of the subject to the individuals concerned and the ambiguity of the evidence pertaining to the topic at issue. Actually ambiguity spurs the curiosity and the interest of the people. Hence rumours spread and circulate in situations where information is needed, but reliable sources of communication are lacking.
There are several ways in which rumours expand. Generally it spreads by gossip. For instance, a lady may say something about some person or some event to her friend without any thorough knowledge of the matter. The friend turally gets much curious and intrigued by the juicy story, especially if she is interested in the person concerned. She stores the interesting story in her mind and gets eager to share it with some of her friends. But before telling it to others she embellishes the story with her own imagition, perhaps unintentiolly. In the embellishment process the origil story gets magnified and becomes more interesting.
Though usually a rumour is spread by gossip, it can also be circulated by letter, telephone message, or telegram. Even news papers, radio, television, movies, pamphlets, and books help in spreading rumour. More effective rumours are spread by gossip and they pass from person to person. That is the way they become more impressive and powerful to sway the people. The rumours become distorted, exaggerated and sometimes even vicious when it is transmitted from person to person. It gathers more and more material and thereby a mountain is made out of a mole hill. Letters, telephones, and postal accessories also facilitate a rapid circulation of rumour. Dissemition of rumour reports through gossip, post and telegraph offices in done only in a small scale. The same is done on a much larger scale by the radio, television, news papers, magazines and books, and thus it is broadcast over a much larger area and a much wider circle of audience.
The famed psychologist Bartlett made experiments to examine how a story gets modified as it is communicated. He read a story to his subject and asked him to repeat it to a third person, who was asked to repeat it to a fourth person and so on. In this way the story got relayed from person to person. It was found in the course of study that as the story passed from one person to another, the gist of the study became shorter and shorter, small and unimportant details being dropped, some new parts got added to it, while the other parts were variously distorted. Actually Bartlett’s study was concerned with the subject of memory. Since memory plays a vital role in the dissemition of rumour, the conclusions are equally applicable to the subject of rumour.
Psychologists Allport and Postman made more extensive studies in rumour to discover the tendencies and a process influencing the content of rumour as it was communicated. They came to the conclusion that rumour goes through much serious distortion through the embellishment process and the origil story may be magnified beyond recognition as it passes from person to person. Allport and Postman stated that “it is never under any circumstance a valid ground for belief or conduct”. Hence it can be stated that a rumour has no claim to truth. Imagition and mental tendency of a person makes it entirely different from the origil one when it goes through an expansion process.
When rumour spreads like wild fire its influence on social life is enormous. It spreads very easily and widely during war, riot or election. The situations at such times are always unstable and explosive and people are ready to believe almost anything. In such unusual and extra-ordiry periods the veracity of any report or information is not questioned and is accepted almost by everybody. In such times the collective mind prevails over the individual minds and judgments. People believe many rumours and accept them as true, even when they know that they are unreliable. Again, if the rumour comes in print, it is considered as authentic. We may say that rumour is a social problem. Once the rumour starts, it easily leaves an impression on the individual minds. Though there is a difference between rumour and objective reality, the individuals easily fall prey to rumour. In fact, they would be shocked if somebody tells them that the rumour is false.
Human beings are ratiol creatures, yet they are very often guided by emotions and non-ratiol elements. It can frequently be seen that people are more influenced by emotions than ratiol elements. Actually many sad and unfortute incidents occur because of rumour. For instance, it may be the basis of the stories of witch-hunt. Some body may have a grudge against some woman and because of this resentment he may spread the rumour that she is a witch and due to her evil actions, many diseases and misfortunes have occurred in the village. In any troubled and agitated mind these rumours make deep impressions. The report spreads and everybody comes to believe in it. The supposed witch is tortured mercilessly, sometimes leading to death. She and her family may also be driven out of the village.
Then we hear of many god men performing miracles. People throng their places and give whatever these god-men demand. The devotees are turally very much impressed by the apparently supertural activities of the god-men. The rumour of his powers spread far and wide with added embellishments. Some god men bring out various things by the wave of their hands and it is only tural that the people gathered there are very much impressed by their obvious miraculous activities. Only a very few discernible persons may find out that the god man brings out various things only by the sleight of his hand. These god-men by their smooth talks and conjuring powers amass huge amounts of money and jewellery from the unsuspecting people. They live in palatial buildings, drive imported cars and live like royalty. Even some celebrities come under their spell and they give a big boost to the god man’s image. People become convinced that they are mini gods and the rumour spreads.
Rumours seem to have both positive and negative aspects. Some rumours are meant to benefit somebody. In a political rally or in some advertisement for something or other, some rumour may be spread for good publicity of the person or the product. But some rumours are intensely painful. They may even make or break a person’s life. Only recently I saw this report in a newspaper, which was a very sad incident. According to the report a tribal family was beaten up and banished from their locality by a kangaroo court in a village in Bura as it was believed that the family practised witchcraft. The family lodged a complaint in the local police station against the head of the community and some others.
Rumours were rife amongst a section of the tribal villagers that the family had been practicing witchcraft in the village and were causing harm to the kids, who were falling sick frequently. On this suspicion, one farmland labour was dragged out of his house and roughed up after a dozen children were suffering from cough and cold for a long time and showed no sign of improvement despite treatment at the local hospital. Hence the accused labourer was charged of practising witchcraft. Hence the community organized a kangaroo court in the village and came to the conclusion that the labourer was bearing an evil soul and deserved to be thrown out of the village. That is the harm a rumour can bring about. The story of the witchcraft has no validity. It was perhaps started out of malice by somebody, and then everybody came to believe it.
Sometimes even a marriage may be cancelled due to some vicious rumours spread against the bride or the groom. These incidents are soul-shattering, yet there may not be any basis for such beliefs. Thus rumours may do much harm to many people. The problem is that most people are ready to believe almost anything and possibly even I do. Or I would never have gone to these astrologers scattered in the city to consult on some issue or another or would have spent more money than I could afford in these costly gems they recommend. I don’t exactly believe in them, but I am always happy if they predict something good and get terribly worried if they predict something bad for me. These astrologers acquire fame and publicity due to the rumour that their findings are always accurate. But that is not correct. If some of their predictions come true, we forget about others, which did not come true.
The actual fact is that at certain times only the heart works and the head does not. We are mostly guided by feelings and emotions. If somebody is in dire needs and is trying to get out of misfortune, he or she may accept anything as true and at such times receives any rumour as gospel truth. It is true that such rumours may bring temporary relief to the unfortute person. But very soon he or she may realise the falsity of the rumour and at such times the pain becomes acute.
Man is a ratiol animal and the reason should be the guiding factor in his life. But most of the time reason takes a back seat and emotions come to the fore front. Non-ratiol elements often work in his mind in place of reason. These non-ratiol elements generate an attitude in human mind and men quickly come to believe whatever seems to be favourable to this attitude, and all that is incompatible with this system is rejected by them. Although the influence of rumour cannot be elimited, its spread can surely be curbed through proper education and careful publicity of true and exact news. Illiterate people succumb to any rumour easily. Hence it is essential to educate people so that they can distinguish between rumour and objective reality. Rumour is never entirely true and it does not actually benefit anybody. Rather it is often very harmful and does irreparable damage. So I think that we should not take rumour seriously. They are after all mere gossip. Reason should be applied in judging any information and we should not depend upon hearsay. It is self-confidence and hard reasoning that can combat any unfounded rumour. Hence sometimes it may be wiser for us to let the head rule the heart.
(The writer is a former Head, Department of Philosophy, Cotton College, Guwahati)