V. Krishna Kumar, PhD
We often think of media as newspapers, magazines, films, music, and the Internet with its many platforms that include news broadcasts, videos, podcasts, and social media. There is, however, one other powerful everyday medium, the “informal word of mouth medium,” which I define as a spontaneous information exchange that occurs between two or more people in interpersonal contexts. The “informal word of mouth media” needs to be differentiated from “oral history” where a systematic effort is made by an investigator to gather recollected information on a certain topic.
In everyday spontaneous conversations, people share their knowledge and experiences hoping to inform or impress others with their knowledge and their well-informed opinions about political happenings, religions, literature, top medical practitioners in the area, best health practices, miracle cures for back problems, best restaurants, where the best bargains for shopping are, or what computer to buy. This is a situation where “loud and not so loud” people talk and want to be heard, share their stories (including gossip), knowledge, understandings, and opinions as facts—only sometimes with a small degree of humility when they add a disclaimer that they are merely expressing an opinion. And, quite annoyingly, sometimes, someone will search the Internet to check or confirm the accuracy of what you just shared and hopefully what they find is not distorted or outright “fake.”
The “informal word of mouth” exchange of information has been with us from ancient days and I am sure a few of our genes are dedicated to our tendency to share information interpersonally. In ancient days, word of mouth exchange was the main source of all real or fake news. The folktales that mesmerized us as children and still do so as adults had been orally passed on from one generation to another, perhaps both informally and formally (e.g., in community celebration gatherings) before someone wrote them down that made them widely available.
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica (2019) note The Thousand and One Nights (aka The Arabian Nights) have a variety of tales with origins in India, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Turkey, and maybe Greece. They also note “By the 20th century, Western scholars had agreed that the Nights is a composite work consisting of popular stories originally transmitted orally and developed during several centuries, with material added somewhat haphazardly at different periods and places.” The changes in stories over centuries are remindful of Bartlett’s (1932/1965) work on perception and memory. Bartlett observed that perception and remembering are creative reconstructions and not merely passive reproductions of our stored memories. From experiments with a variety of stimuli, Bartlett inferred that perceptual and memory processes are inferential in nature influenced by temperament, prior knowledge, interests and attitudes. As we perceive and process information, Bartlett argued that there is an “effort after meaning.” (p. 20). In one of his experiments, Bartlett had participants read a Native American folktale and tell and retell it after different time intervals. He found the story to change dramatically with increasing time intervals, it became shorter and more coherent as the participants omitted details, changed words (e.g., canoe became boat, paddling became rowing, p. 82), and introduced new content—”Whenever anything appeared incomprehensible or ‘queer’, it was either omitted or explained” (p. 68) and this happened unwittingly or without conscious effort.
It is probably rare that our well-wishing close friends and associates will deliberately distort information to fool us. However, I wonder if the informal word of mouth medium contributes in some ways to the creation and dissemination of distorted information or fake news. If we accept Bartlett’s analysis that “unwitting distortions” can occur as we tell and retell stories, then a new news story can be created from an old one during interpersonal exchanges where somewhat different versions are presented along with relevant and less relevant information. It is possible that the new resulting distorted narrative is a result of some sort of an averaging effect that has been used to explain the “dilution effect” that occurs in predictions and arguments when both types of information, relevant and non-relevant, are presented (Nisbett, Zukier, & Lelmley, 1981; Sivanathan & Kakkar, 2019). Recent studies by Sivanathan and Kakkar (2019) show that when a drug ad with a higher number of side effects, including minor ones, is shown, participants rated the drug as “more appealing” and lower in “overall severity.” The averaging effect, a result of “cognitive algebra” as Nisbett et al. (1981, p. 274) explain it, may also occur in interpersonal conversations where somewhat different narratives may be averaged to produce a narrative that differs from the original one. And, as people share their own “distorted” narratives with others, they introduce new content, thereby, quite “unwittingly” shift the average a bit more in a new direction to produce a fake narrative. They say charity begins at home—fake news may begin at home too. And, so it goes.
Bartlett, F. C (1932/1965). Remembering. A study in experimental and social Psychology. Cambridge University Press.
Nisbett, R. E., Zukier, H., & Lemley, R. E. (1981). The dilution effect: Nondiagnostic information weakens the implications of diagnostic information. Cognitive Psychology, 13, 248-277.
Sivanathan, N., & Kakkar, H. (2019, February 20). How drug company ads downplay risks. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-drug-company-ads-downplay-risks/?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=mind&utm_content=link&utm_term=2019-02-27_top-stories&spMailingID=58597838&spUserID=MTQ2NzQ0NDk3NjQzS0&spJobID=1583431068&spReportId=MTU4MzQzMTA2OAS2. Retrieved March 8, 2019
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica (2019, January 18). The thousand and one nights. https://www.britannica.com/topic/The-Thousand-and-One-Nights. Retrieved March 8, 2019.