Rumor Transmission

Motivated by concerns about controlling the spread of rumors during World War II, All-port and Postman (1947) studied rumors in the laboratory and offered advice to the government. Their book, The Psychology of Rumor, illustrates the interplay between history and psychological work, beginning with classifying the rumors that circulated following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. It is an early example of applied social psychological research, and it interweaves experimental laboratory studies of basic processes with socially relevant descriptions of real rumors and strategies in an effort to prevent them from undermining the national interest.

One set of concepts Allport and Postman (1947) investigated concerned the cognitive processes of leveling and sharpening, which cause information to change, becoming more general or more specific as rumors are repeated. In a classic study, they found that information that begins with an eyewitness and then is passed on by word of mouth can change considerably. One subject viewed a slide in which a white man holding a knife was apparently arguing with a black man in a subway car. The subject, while looking at the slide, described it to another subject, who could not see it. Based on this description, the second subject described it to a third subject, and so on, until, like the child's game of telephone, the rumor had been passed on to several subjects. In over half the replications, the black man was erroneously reported as holding the knife at some point in the rumor transmission. This study has become a classic one supporting the idea that stereotypes lead to erroneous eyewitness reporting. Ironically, the original study is often exaggerated (Boon & Davis, 1987) and distorted (Treadway & McCloskey, 1987) in making this point.

Allport believed that psychology, especially the psychology of personality, should gain truth from many areas. He called his approach eclectic. According to Allport, who drew his distinction from the German poet Goethe, we can distinguish "jackdaw" eclecticism from systematic eclecticism. A jackdaw is a bird that, like a pack rat, collects everything. Jackdaw eclecticism is not selective. Systematic eclecticism, in contrast, is selective and tries to make one unified whole out of all that is taken. Since most psychologists consider themselves eclectic with respect to personality theory, we should take Allport's advice to heart and consider how we select what to keep and what to discard from each theory.

Allport accepted insights from various theories. He accepted Freud's assertion that sexual conflict is particularly important in the formation of personality (Allport, 1937b, p. 116), although this was a passing remark that he did not often restate. He included many psychoanalytic mechanisms in his eclectic approach, including "rationalization, projection, fantasy, infantilism, regression, dissociation, trauma, the complex, and the ego-idear (p. 183). He also included Adler's concept of inferiority, even investigating the frequency of various types of inferiority complexes in college students. He reported that 48 percent of men and 55 percent of women suffer from persistent feelings of inferiority about physical matters; 58 percent of men and 65 percent of women feel inferior about social matters; 29 percent of men and 64 percent of women feel inferior about intellectual matters; and only 17 percent of men and 18 percent of women feel inferior about moral matters (p. 174). Thus Allport, with his eclectic approach, borrowed from diverse sources.


Gordon Allport influenced the development of academic psychology with his emphasis on major themes: personality consistency, social influence, the concept of self, and the interaction of personality with social influence in determining behavior. Allport defined personality as "the dynamic organization within the individual of those psychophysical systems that determine his unique adjustments to the environment." The primary unit of personality is the trait. Traits can be studied idiographically (individual traits) or nomo-thetically (common traits). Evidence of traits comes from many sources: language, behavior, documents (such as letters), and such questionnaires as the Study of Values. Allport emphasized that the subject matter should take precedence over methodological issues.

Traits vaiy in pervasiveness. Cardinal traits have extremely pervasive influences but occur in only a few people. Central traits have broad influences and occur in eveiyone. In addition, people have secondary traits that influence only a few behaviors. Traits are in the middle of a spectrum of aspects of personality, ranging from veiy narrow reflexes through highly integrated selves. As personality develops, traits become functionally autonomous from their developmental origins. Thus the study of personality should focus on contemporaneous issues. Allport listed several characteristics of a mature, healthy adult: extension of the sense of self, warm human interactions, emotional security (self-acceptance), realistic perceptions, self-objectification, and a unifying philosophy of life. The healthy personality is unified, combining various elements into a imitas multiplex. Personality development, the development of the unifying proprium, proceeds through stages: bodily sense, self-identity, ego-enhancement, ego-extensions, self-image, rational agent, propriate striving, and the self as knower. Allport studied prejudice, which he said was more frequent among extrinsically religious individuals and less frequent among intrinsically religious individuals. He conducted applied social research on rumor transmission. Overall, Allport's approach was eclectic.

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