How Myths Grow: A New Study in Psychology

F. Opper cartoon from 1894 poking fun at the myth about furniture that "came over on the Mayflower"


What does a study by three psychologists mentioned in the Feb. 12, 2011 Economist have to do with history myths?

Quite a lot, as it turns out. Derek Rucker and David Dubois of the Kellogg School of Management and Zakary Tormala of Stanford business school were studying the psychology of information qualifiers and how rumors are spread. Experimenting with undergraduates, they found that, as information is passed around, the qualifiers are lost. For instance, the first person says, “I am not sure if this is true, but I’ve heard that . . . ” The second person repeats it as, “I heard that . . . ” Soon it becomes, “Did you know that . . . ?” Even when no one intends to spread false stories, they spread because the qualifiers fail to travel along with the rumor.

The focus of their research was on whether companies should rebut false information, but I thought it was worth pointing out for its application to the spread of historical myths, or “myth-information,” as someone called it.

The article is quite short.  Read it at


5 Responses to How Myths Grow: A New Study in Psychology

  1. […] describing how this tendency to mythologize comes about. You can read their take on it here, and “The Economist” article here, where Derek Rucker explains that by restating […]

    • Deborah Brower says:

      I like the explanation of how rumors spread, in particular the loss of qualifiersbut they leave you with little in the way of solutions. Is it really enough to just put out positive statements? Following your blog makes it clear that once a myth is started you cannot eliminate it. Myths are like brush fires you think you have them out and then next thing you know they flare up again. They will never go away there will always be someone who is sure it’s true no matter what evidence you present to the contrary.

      Since it’s Presidents Day. I’ll bring up something I’ve been working on locally – John Hanson as the “real” first president of the United States. Much is being made of this, a plaque and a seven foot statue are going up in front of the court house. John Hanson was not President of the Unites States. He was president of Congress Assembled and not even the first president of that. He is the first to serve a mandated 12 month term under the Articles of Confederation and that’s it. The Articles of Confederation have no executive branch so the position was powerless, nothing like being President under the Constitution. At the time Hanson did not consider himself first president, he wrote to his predecessor referring to him as president. Hanson found the job tedious and tried to resign. The whole first president business did not start until the late 1890s. Local historians are trying to correct the record but it’s not easy.

      Myths are appealing in part because they seem to be a hidden truth, providing a got you moment. Sometimes you have to look at who a myth is serving. Who ever said knowledge is power was right, they just forgot to add it doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. I almost feel like “myth” is too genteel a term in some cases and “fakelore” is much more to the point.

  2. marymiley says:

    You’re right, the authors of that study don’t give solutions, per se. Their advice to corporations trying to debunk myths that are damaging their business (like Proctor and Gamble having Satanist links) is to ignore them. Addressing them only gives them more exposure. We’ll always live with myths.
    And I like your word, FAKELORE. Excellent!

  3. Deborah Brower says:

    As much as I’d like to I cannot take credit for “fakelore”. I got it from Kate Clifford Larson or Leigh Fellner who have done exhaustive work trying to debunk the quilt code.

  4. marymiley says:

    Ah yes, the quilt codes. I’ll get around to that one soon. I’ll need to chat with some of the folks who have done debunking work. Would you have e-mail addresses for Larson and/or Fellner? If you do, you might send them directly to me at Thanks.

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