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. The negative perceptions of others are enough to trigger shame, even when there’s no wrongdoing. This evolved as a check on anti-social behavior: "The function of shame is to prevent us from damaging our social relationships, or to motivate us to repair them if we do” says Daniel Sznycer, a Professor at University of Montreal. However sometimes these mechanisms go haywire. Bocconi University in Milan, Italy, has a superstition: if you walk between two lion statues, you won’t graduate in the fall. A study found that as many as 20% of students wouldn’t walk between the lions for $1,000. The study went on to prove 80% of those students will privately take much less money to break the superstition, so long as others do too. They are motivated by conforming to peer pressure, not actual belief.
There’s usually a kernel of truth that starts these urban rumours – perhaps a string of college dropouts who coincidentally crossed the lions – but the initial story must be distorted in 3 directions to make a good rumour. The story must be levelled of important details, because we have more capacity to believe something if there’s no easily verifiable information. The remaining details in the story must then be sharpened – made more specific – to make it memorable or the rumour won’t be passed on. Finally the rumour must be assimilated into the group: adapted to make sense to those spreading the story. Whenever you find people believing something unlikely or unusual, there are usually group social dynamics at play. The lion statues are a unique landmark in Bocconi University, one that the entire class and faculty would be familiar with.
Once you have a good story, bereft of details, sharp in memory, and tailored towards the group, you need one final ingredient: the cost of belief. Believing the rumour has to incur very little relative cost, compared to the purported benefits: avoiding lion statues all semester is a small price to pay relative to failing to graduate. If the rumour demanded more than a minor inconvenience, enough people would break it to provide evidence that it has no power. Note that it can be a larger cost so long as the punishment is far greater. For example Pascal’s wager, that a rational man should go to all the effort to worship God just in case: because it’s worth it, weighed against eternal damnation.
So to dispel a maladapted meme, you need to do the opposite. First, realize that it’s no use denying the rumour and providing evidence: once someone believes something, studies show that receiving contradictory evidence only serves to strengthen their beliefs, because it becomes part of their identity so they take your efforts to disprove it as a personal insult. Instead you must give them a new story to believe: elicit a confession to the ‘real’ story, with enough embarrassing details to make it credible. To break the spell at Bocconi you would need to track down someone recognized as an early proponent of the rumour, and get them to admit it was just laziness. Catharsis relieves the burden of repressing taboo topics, and gives the crowd something new to discuss. Inject more details into the new story, so that you take all the fun out of the rumour: that way it’ll fizzle out instead of becoming a new myth to dispel.
Finally break the personalization of the story by showing them it’s not unique to their group – that every college has silly superstitions – the same story is playing out in macro across all humanity. A time-honoured technique is to point out that a rival group has a similar silly superstition, and pit their group identity against the rumour. You can also agree in an over-the-top manner to make the story more radical, for example saying that not only will you not graduate but you’ll also die! When confronted with how ridiculous your version sounds, it’ll put them off theirs. If all that fails you need to ramp up the cost of belief, or decreases the cost of failure: build a fence that forces students to cross the lions, or announce that anyone failing this year can re-take the exam with no penalty. Or if you’re brave enough: walk through the lion statues yourself.
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