Why some urban legends go viral

By: Joe Stubbersfield

Urban legends get around, but we don’t really understand why. We conducted a study to explain how misinformation spreads surprisingly fast and why people feel compelled to share it. There are many urban legends and often they can fill us with horror. A number of websites, most notably snopes.com, are dedicated to their collection and analysis.

While many of us regard urban legends as just a bit of harmless fun, they can sometimes have negative consequences on individuals and communities, spreading fear and mistrust. But what is it about urban legends that make them so culturally successful? In a paper recently published in the British Journal of Psychology, based on work I conducted at Durham University with Jamie Tehrani and Emma Flynn, we examined the idea that the success of urban legends can be explained by the way our brains evolved to learn, remember and transmit certain types of (mis)information more readily than others. Their success could be explained by two key biases in our cognition.

The first suggests that we evolved to notice and remember information about our environment that is important for our survival. The second suggests that we evolved greater intelligence in order to keep track of social interactions and relationships. These hypotheses suggest that we are evolved to be disposed to social and survival information, leaving us susceptible to notice, remember and pass on stories that contain this information, even if it does not reflect reality.

To examine how these cognitive biases might influence how urban legends are passed on from one person to another, our study used a design in the vein of “Chinese Whispers,” the children’s game in which information is passed from one child to another by whispering in their ears only once. By the time the information has reached the end child, it has invariably changed. The study showed two things. First, people were attracted to stories that contained survival threats and social relationships. They were also likely to pass them both on to another person. Second, and this is more important, urban legends that contained social information were more successfully remembered than those that only involved survival information.

This supports the theory that human intelligence and memory primarily evolved to deal with the challenges of living in large social groups with complex relationships, rather than dealing with the challenges posed by our environment, which is a commonly held view. They also help explain why urban legends can be found that involve both social interaction and survival threats.

We are attracted to both types of information and willing to pass both types of story on, but stories that contain social information live longer in our memory. It also helps to explain why so many stories are about families, factions, friendships and fallings-out as well as death and disease.







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