Towards an aesthetics of urban legends

Photo by Flickr user quinn.anya. Click for sourceThe Point of Inquiry podcast has a great discussion with psychologist Scott Lilienfeld about his new book ’50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology’ and why scientific-sounding mental fairy tales persist, despite them having no good evidence to support them.

The most interesting bit is where Lilienfeld tackles why such myths have their psychological power, which to me is far the most interesting aspect of why certain stories perpetuate.

Some ideas seem to have properties that give them social currency. Here’s one of my favourite and you can try it out yourself – the usual format of the conversation goes something like this:

– Remember Bobby McFerrin, the ‘Don’t Worry Be Happy’ guy?
– Yeah, I remember him.
– Killed himself.
– Huh, that figures.

This myth has no evidence for it whatsoever, Bobby McFerrrin is alive and well, but it became so widespread that Snopes created a page debunking the story.

What is it about this story that makes it so easily accepted? Or perhaps, we should ask, what is it about this story which makes it so attractive to pass on to others?

There has been a considerable amount of research on the psychology of rumours that attempts to explain why we are motivated to spread them. A fantastic book called Rumor Psychology reviews the research which indicates that uncertainty, importance or outcome-relevant involvement, lack of control, anxiety, and belief are crucial – but this doesn’t seem to apply to all such rumours (as an aside, it’s interesting that these principles seem rarely applied in military PsyOps campaigns e.g. see Iraq war leaflet archive).

On a personal level, you can see how these principles might apply to trite ‘women are from mars, women are from venus’ pop relationship psychology, but it doesn’t seem to apply quite so well to the commonly repeated myth that we use only 10% of our brains.

And when we consider the ‘Bobby McFerrin topped himself’ story, none of it seems relevant. Perhaps this is better thought of as ‘gossip’, but unfortunately the psychology of gossip is much less developed and relies largely on pseudo-evolutionary ideas about social bonding and the like (Robin Dunbar’s book Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language is perhaps the most developed example of this).

I often wonder if we need an experimental aesthetics of information that helps us understand why such stories are inherently attractive, in the same way that studies have begun to focus on what makes certain tunes catchy.

Link to Point of Inquiry podcast on PopPsy myths.

6 thoughts on “Towards an aesthetics of urban legends”

  1. Actually, there is a huge body of empirical work that relates to this, but by introducing the theme of gossip you are, ah, conflating in the wrong direction.
    The specific rumor mechanism – at least as it relates to the nice McFerrin story – is precisely that of “news” and is identical to the most classic of all news headlines: “Man bites dog”.
    There are as many definitions of news as there are journalists – or perhaps it would be wiser to say, as there are editors, since the ability to actually identify news and reduce it to an effective headline are the fundamental skills for advancement in that profession and not everyone possesses them.
    Most of these definitions agree that news in the journalistic sense contains certain specific elements. It’s useful to note first that “importance” is not among these, at least not necessarily. A classic in corporate press offices, for instance, is the circumstance where the Chief of Marketing comes down and wants a press release issued because he is going to spend $20 million opening a new marketing channel and he knows this is important. It is, but it’s not news, and unless an “angle” can be found its not going to make the papers.
    News is not even necessarily “new”. The man bites dog story still reappears regularly, ideally dressed in a slightly different sauce each time. A fairly recent British example for instance had a blind man biting his guide dog.
    At any rate, most definitions of news involve the “intellectual” tension that arises from combining familiar elements in an unfamiliar or paradoxical way: the man biting the dog and the “Get Happy” man who kills himself.
    Apples that make you sick, SUVs that melt icecaps and cause the oceans to rise, a saintly President who sneaks cigarettes and Paris Hilton finding God are other examples. The familiarity of the elements is vital, a reason “personalities” have become necessary to journalism. The tension-producing factor that links these elements is commonly, but not necessarily, simple incongruity.
    There are a few other vital elements, though they may not be immediately obvious outside of the news business. One that will not come into the minds of non-professionals is that news is short. If the heart of the matter cannot be expressed in just a handful of words, it is not news – it may be information, it may be many other things, but it’s not news.
    It is also not strictly necessary that news be true, though professional pride requires that the effort be made. The sharp distinction between news and rumors is a largely modern phenomenon and seems to bear within it the idea that information printed on paper or at least on a “reputable” website is possibly true, while things merely said from one person to another more easily may not be.
    The modern neatness of the distinction may arise from the huge efforts made by the warring nations in the two World Wars – and since – to control what their citizens said to each other, but we are getting slightly off the track. In realistic terms, the only obvious feature distinguishing “news” from “rumor” is the claim of authority made for the first as opposed to the second – a very largely artificial distinction.
    Non-professionals may not quite recognize the implicit definition of “news” in all this because they are used to seeing many other kinds of content in their newspapers and news programs: worthy and useful things, “policy” and “analysis” for instance – the things working journalists in the States call “thumb-suckers”…
    This comment has to stop somewhere and so it may be appropriate to point out in conclusion that there is one absolute definition of news that is at least implicitly – and usually explicitly – accepted in the business of journalism: “News is what the public wants to read”. Everything else is “editorial policy” and thumb-sucking.

  2. I’ve always been a huge fan of the Fortean Times, which essentially is a journal of exactly this kind of question. It’s less about “Is There a Loch Ness Monster?” than “How did people start to believe in the Loch Ness Monster, and why do they persist?”

  3. @James – thanks! I feel considerably informed, and that you put Vaughan’s original post in exactly the right context
    A side interest of mine is exactly why we find some stories satisfying (such that we want to believe and/or re-tell them). You refer to the intellectual tension of combining familiar elements in paradoxical or unfamiliar way (Man bites dog, paris hilton finds god etc), but it isn’t the case that *any* paradoxical combination is satisfying. The “Don’t worry be happy” singer who kills himself is a good example of a story which seems to satisfy because it looks “inevitable” in retrospect
    William Goldman, in “Adventures in the Screen Trade” (highly recommended, btw), says something like “A good story is one that builds to a suprising and inevitable conclusion”

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