The World War Two rumour labs

During World War Two, the US Government considered setting up ‘rumour clinics’ to collect and analyse hearsay that might undermine the war effort. The government plan never got off the ground but the idea was taken up by independent psychologist who create numerous clinics that aimed to debunk popular rumours and educate the American public about the psychology of tittle-tattle.

This little known chapter in the history of the war is outlined in an article for the History of Psychology journal which describes how the famous Harvard psychologist Gordon Allport created one of the most successful wartime clinics which tackled some quite surprising rumours:

The set-up of the Boston Clinic became the prototype for the many clinics that would follow in the months to come. The focal point of the Clinic was a column published every Sunday in the newspaper. Prevalent rumors were chosen for analysis and refutation. These rumors would be labeled as such and printed in italics, followed by an answer or refutation labeled “Fact” and printed in bold type. Frequently, the column would include a psychological analysis of prevalent rumors, aimed at increasing public understanding of the psychological motives underlying the spread of different types of rumor. The column was also distributed to high schools and posted on community bulletin boards, with the expectation that such measures would promote public understanding of rumor in wartime. In addition to counteracting rumors, members of the clinic were often also responsible for classifying and analyzing rumor data, distributing flyers, gauging public opinion, and giving speeches on wartime rumor spreading.

In the first column of the Boston Herald Rumor Clinic, rumors were reported to the Clinic by “official agencies”; by the following Sunday, however, the Clinic had begun receiving and analyzing rumors sent in by readers. All readers were encouraged to provide rumors, with the only stipulation being that they must sign their names; anonymous rumors would not be considered. By the third week, the Clinic had received more rumors than they had time or space to analyze (“The rumor clinic,“ 1942b). Rumors ranged from the simplistic and common to the elaborate and eccentric.

The most common rumors analyzed in the Herald were those pertaining to waste of rationed materials, government dishonesty and corruption, mistreatment of American soldiers, the imminence of defeat or victory, and the future value of war bonds. Unusual or less feasible rumors were also considered, including a story circulating about glass or poison being found in crabmeat packed in Japan (The rumor clinic, 1942d) and a story about a woman employed at a shell filing factory whose head exploded after receiving a permanent at the local beauty parlor (The rumor clinic, 1942c). These latter types of anecdotes received less attention in the column, but appeared periodically amid a sea of more common rumors, such as those regarding rationing and corruption.

Unfortunately the full article is locked behind a paywall, so, ironically, you only have access to this second-hand information.

Link to PubMed entry for article.

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