I am Altaf Hussain, a 24-year-old student of chartered accountancy. I read your article about mob psychology. I think an important part in all these mob activities is played by the rumors, which are so rampant these days. A situation, which can be easily controlled, then is distorted by these rumors and only results in a frenzy and panic. Why do these rumors spread and what is the psychology behind them?
Rumors are stories about some real or factitious event or person, which is communicated from person to person and which changes and grows as it spreads. It passes through various stages. The first stage is simplification or leveling. Here parts of the original story do not appear in the rumor. The general features and theme are retained, but certain details are omitted. The next stage is that of sharpening. Here there is an elaboration in the form of emphasis of certain details, presumably at the expense of those that were omitted. The third stage is of conventionalization or assimilation, in which unfamiliar forms are changed to forms that are more familiar. This helps to maintain the rumor because of the support given to the values, which need to be perpetuated. Any story not so assimilated could not persist for long. Rumors spread very rapidly in the times of crisis as they carry a lot of emotional significance. Sometimes the rumor is deliberately created, as the motive is to create a crisis and social unrest. Rumors have a few characteristics. The first is of importance. Rumors are not spread about trivial matters. Trivial matters will not be communicated. If the story is of important matters or about important individuals, then there is a great amount of pride involved. It arouses curiosity and anxiety in the individual and so the individual communicates it to another individual whom he meets. The next characteristic is of ambiguity. The whole situation is vague and ambiguous. Rumors will not spread if people have information in which they have confidence. The next element is of being dramatic. People are always moved by the adage “There is no smoke without fire”. Therefore, whenever a fantastic rumor is spread, they believe that there must be some truth, although it may not be wholly true. It is satisfying to their aggressive tendencies that they are able to participate in spreading these rumors. People are very happy when they find that the big men are as foolish and weak as they themselves are. Rumors are a special kind of suggestion. People tend to accept uncritically what they hear. Further, they tend to accept a story about another man, which satisfies their own pride. Rumors tend to circulate because it serve3s to relieve the emotional tension felt by the individual. Gossip is a chief method of spreading rumors. Pamphlets and mass media can also turn rumors into phenomena of great magnitude. Many rumors are responsible for mob behavior. The rumors can create homogeneity in thought, feeling and action in the mob. There is imitation and primitive passive sympathy. There is social facilitation as the response is released and augmented by the sight of other people performing the same act. In a mob activity generated by rumors, there is a dominant hierarchy. The dominance and aggression are highest in the center and least in the periphery of the mob. The individuals who are highly agitated and who are ready to act move to the center and who are not so interested move away from the center. These people are only mildly interested in the problem and are probably only watching the behavior of the mob. Each one of us possesses the impulses to have spread rumors and indulge in mobs. These are controlled by social training and social conditions. However, when we become members of the mobs, these inhibitions are removed and the unconscious impulses to attack, destroy and kill those who annoy come into operation. Some rumors can create a centrifugal panic situation. For e.g. a rumor of a bomb in a cinema hall. People run away from the place of danger, as due to the irrationality, they are unable to think clearly. So resulting action is maladjustment. Everyone rushes and it is possible that many people are hurt due to the rush. Another type of rumor can create a centripetal action. For e.g. an acquisitive mob can be formed if there is a rumor of shortage of petrol or food. People rush to the shops to buy and hoard as much as they can. This creates actual shortage. This rumor works on the greed of our desires. In this way, rumors actually serve to distort the actual situation. Because of the high emotionality and irrationality, rumors are attractive; they also provide a variety to the life of people. Many people who have very uninteresting personal lives indulge in spreading rumors. It causes sensationalism and they take pride in being the origin of these rumors. Even if proved wrong, it does cause people to pay attention to them. It is very difficult to stay away from the pressure of passing on rumors. However, you must try and confirm every gossip or news that you think is important before passing it on. With the advent of very high profile and fast communication systems like newspapers and news channels, confirmation of data becomes easy and quick. It would be a great help to the victims of these rumors if people were able to refrain from spreading rumors. There are a lot of methods to gain attention, most of them being much more strenuous and painful, but moralistically correct and not victimizing other people.