We’re social animals, and as such the thoughts, opinions, and actions of others affect our own. Rumours are the most viral form of social reinforcement: used to determine group boundaries, and declare what we deem acceptable. Sometimes these mechanisms go wrong. Bocconi University has a superstition: if you walk between two lion statues, you won’t graduate. A study found 20% of students wouldn’t walk between the lions for $1,000.
80% of students will privately take much less money to break the superstition if others do. They conform from peer pressure, not belief. There’s usually a kernel of truth – a string of college dropouts who coincidentally crossed the lions – but are distorted in 3 directions. The story must be levelled of important details (we can only believe if there’s no verifiable information). The remaining details must be sharpened – made more specific – to make it memorable. Finally it must be assimilated into the group: adapted to make sense to those spreading the story.
So to dispel a maladapted meme do the opposite. First, confess to the real story: catharsis relieves the burden of repressing taboo topics. Get the dropouts to admit their laziness was the real culprit. Add back in missing details – everyone who crossed the statues without failing – until the story feels mundane and boring. Then educate the audience by showing them this story is not unique to their group – every college has silly superstitions – it’s playing out in macro across all humanity.