Reality Check

The Psychology of Rumors: Why They Spread & How To Avoid Being Misled

The Psychology of Rumors: Why They Spread & How To Avoid Being Misled

read in: 34 min

By Ebony S. Muhammad

Can a person be part of a conspiracy and not know it? The answer to this question that was posed in the Self-Improvement: The Basis for Community Development Study Guide 17, “Hypocrisy and Conspiracy”, written by the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan, is yes. One of the ways this can take place is through rumors and gossip.

Rumors have existed for eons. However today, with the use of social media, rumors are everywhere and almost impossible to avoid running into. But what exactly makes them spread from their conception? What makes them seemingly so irresistible of entertaining? Who are the ones who spread them and why? How can we avoid being misled and, unknowingly, participants to the spreading of rumors? These questions, will be addressed within this article, with the help of Allah (God).

A few years ago a student minister opened the Sunday mosque meeting (Houston) with a concept and principle that has stuck with me since.

He shared with those present that there are certain kinds of people who are addicted to drama, especially gossip. He further went on to say that similarly to those addicted to drugs, there is a chemical released in the brain in which that person, who is addicted to drama, experiences much like when an addicts receives a hit. With drugs, it directly or indirectly targets the brain’s reward system flooding the circuit with dopamine, which is a neurotransmitter in the region of the brain that regulates movement, emotion, motivation and feelings of pleasure. To achieve this feeling again, the behavior is reinforced (i.e. get more drugs) teaching the user to repeat it.

So it is with drama. Drama can be very addictive to those susceptible, which is why drama television series do so well in terms of ratings, followings, and participation on social media.

When that person addicted to drama needs a “fix”, they surround themselves with drama, whether created or as a willing participant in instigating it. And when there is no drama taking place, they are almost unable to function (i.e. withdrawal, depression, irritability, unmotivated, etc.) therefore, they have to manufacture the drama, thus receiving the high they craved, no matter who gets hurt in the process.

When I heard these words and this concept it naturally struck a chord with me since I was finishing my Masters in Psychology at that time. He was speaking on neurological Psychology or neuro-psychology, which is a branch of psychology that is concerned with how the brain and the rest of the nervous system influence a person’s cognition (thinking) and behaviors. At that time I was completing my thesis on the history of the lobotomy procedure and detailing what the modern version of that is by way of pharmaceutical drugs, how those pills effect the brain and the mind.

What that student minister was conveying was how we’ve been willing participants in something so counterproductive to our divine purpose, distracted and even deviant to ourselves and to others by partaking in drama, gossip and slack talk.

In the Nation Of Islam we are forbidden to engage in gossip and slack talk. The damage and repercussions can be irreparable to those involved. It is described as savage behavior and certainly not belonging to those considered civilized. The Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan teaches that even if what is said is true, it is the intention or motive behind the words spoken that can make it an evil act.


According to the Merriam-Webster’s Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, Gossip is defined as information about the behavior and personal lives of other people.

I’d also like to include Gossipmonger, which is defined as a person who enjoys talking about other people’s private lives; a person who spreads gossip.

Slack, as in slack talk, is defined as someone or something weak, slow, relaxed or careless.

Slander is also a part of this cadre of the malicious mindset and behavior, and it is defined as the act of making a false spoken statement that causes people to have a bad opinion of someone.

There are some key tell tale signs and characteristics of those who fit the above titles, their psychological profile, that we’ll get into shortly.


The above ingredients (drama, gossip, slack talk and slander) give rise to a bi-product called rumors. Rumors are information or a story that is passed from person to person but has not been proven to be true. Again, even if what is being said is true or has truth in it, we must examine the motive behind it spreading and from whom. A Rumor Mill is a group of people who start and spread rumors. Rumormonger is a person who enjoys spreading rumors.

In a world where everyone has a degree in or an opinion about  something, people want to assert what they believe is true or what is behind something unexplained. The uncertainty of something or someone is one of the elements that exists within a rumor. People want to make sense of something that cannot be explained. The brain has to make it make sense. It is the unknown that can give rise to rumors.


So what makes a rumor so appealing or irresistible?

According to rumor expert and corporate consultant Laurent Gaildraud, a good rumor has to trigger a primal emotion; fear, anger, disgust or laughter.  Again, these are primal emotions void of logic. Therefore, it is information that puts you in a low cognitive or low thinking mode, where you do not think critically. Rumors are not based in logic. They are rooted in emotion 100%.   It is when those primal emotions are activated, possibly reminding you of something that has happened to you or someone you know, it initiates the primal part of your brain, shutting down your rational thinking.

Therefore, if someone can activate your emotions, which most people believe they can trust, they will be less likely to explore other rationale or hold off on passing judgment. Rumors manipulate emotions, and with someone intentionally doing so, rumors can be incredibly destructive to the unsuspecting.

This is why we are taught in the Nation Of Islam to rise above emotion into the thinking of God. This is based in the Self-Improvement: The Basis for Community Development Study Guide 18 “Rising Above Emotion Into The Thinking Of God”, written by the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan.

He defines Emotion as an affective state of consciousness in which joy, sorrow, fear, hate, or the like is experienced, as distinguished from cognitive and volitional states of consciousness. He further states that emotion is intensified feeling. It can become so strong and overpowering that it masters the mind or judgment.


There are two parts of the brain that are important to consider when dealing with emotion and how rumors work:

1) The Limbic System is found surrounding the most primitive part of the brain (emotions, urges, hunger, socializing, etc.)


2) Cerebrum (Cortex) controls specific functions  that processes information from our senses. The frontal cortex is the thinking center of the brain. It powers our ability to think, plan, solve problems and make decisions.


Research says that the limbic system is 1,000 times faster than the cortex, which explains why rumors are so successful in spreading like wildfire.


The Most Honorable Elijah Muhammad teaches us to think five times before we speak, and given the information above, one can understand how doing so can prevent being a participant in a rumor (conspiracy/propaganda) and not know it. Thinking five times before speaking reactivates the cortex, the rational thinking part of the brain, and enables one to rise above emotion into the thinking of God.


There are typically three kinds of people involved in rumors:


1) The Culprit; Rumormonger – This can include the Gossipmonger as well. These individuals tend to run in packs like hyenas or can function solo like a snake. They are malicious. They can be as low down as the animal of prey or as sophisticated as the reptile. Nevertheless, they function and thrive within drama, gossip, slack-talk and definitely willing participants with rumors. These individuals are usually unhappy with some aspect of their life, thus giving in to entertaining the personal lives of others as a distraction to their own drawbacks. It could be their own personal life that they are unhappy with, their professional life, their physical appearance, what they feel they lack intellectually, socially or materially.

This can also included individuals who could have been sent, paid or unpaid, to cause disruption among a particular group. One thing is for sure, all those above are malnourished spiritually.

Aside from the agent, mole, or the one sent in, these individuals (male or female) are also emotional, easily angered and susceptible to arrogance, vanity and envy. Alongside with the agent, mole, or the one sent in, they tend to seek positions of authority, which gives them a bird’s eye view of more to talk about. They deeply desire to be the problem solver, the match maker, the one everyone comes to for knowledge (know-it-all), which is why they tend to thrive spreading rumors; knowing so much of other people’s personal lives. They enjoy being seen as one who knows what others may not, the secrets or newly released tidbits of others. They are slick, conniving, and can even camouflage themselves as ‘the noble one’: “I heard something and I thought you may want to know…”.

To be clear, it is not the position they seek that is the Culprit, it is the mind and motive for seeking that position. There are Culprits that are not in high positions. There is the other extreme, which makes it easier for them to come in and out undetected. Someone who plays the back and watches, who can slide in and drop seeds and then slide back out to watch what happens as those seeds sprout.

The common thread among these individuals is what it is they are saying. Does it activate primal emotions or those primal feelings of anger, fear, disgust or laughter? Does it stimulate judgment of something or someone? Does it create suspicion around something unexplained? Is it concerning the private lives of others? These are questions to keep at the forefront when receiving information and analyzing the characteristics of those giving you the information.

However, there is an exception to consider that incorporates all of the above. Sometimes we receive rumors from those who are close to us, and because of our personal relationships to these individuals, who more than likely fit the above characteristics, we give them a pass and receive the rumor with little to no resistance. Thus becoming the next type of person involved in a rumor.


2) The Accomplice – The ones who receives the rumor and spreads the rumor; whether with or not with malicious intent. The Accomplice is the tag-a-long, the one who does a lot of talking, and to some extent, more than the Culprit. These individuals give life to the rumor, because they do so much talking, they insert more emotion into it as they receive and relay the rumor. They are the impressionable, and the ones who usually do not question the Culprit or source of the rumor. They do little challenging. They may go back and forth about the details, but will usually give in to the rumor because of their own pre-conceived thoughts about something or someone involved in the rumor.

It may, in their minds, answer the unexplained or unanswered question concerning something or someone. Often these individuals enjoy feeling affiliated with someone who is considered “connected” or on the “inside”. Therefore, sharing the information/rumor they received may (in their minds) elevate them or their status with others. This need to feel a part of an exclusive group or clique is also present. So the Accomplice then goes to others believing they have access to a reliable source, an affiliation and closeness that the larger group may not, and spread the rumor in an attempt to not only elevate themselves but to validate themselves and soothe whatever insecurities (personal or social) that may exist.  Because of the above, the Accomplice does not take into consideration the damage that can come about to those they share the rumor with. These individuals, who are considered bystanders, may not even be looking to or for such dialogue, but are brought into the fold.


3) The Bystander – Those who receive the rumor, whether directly or indirectly and are likely ill-effected by the rumor. These are individuals who tend to be going about their business as usual and stumble into the rumor. It’s a trickledown effect. The rumors can transform into seeds planted with mere statements versus a full-fledged conversation about someone or something. It’s an insinuation, something suggested without much explanation or certainty. Bystanders can be in earshot of rumors and receive the rumor without being in the actual conversation.  This is what is known as Casual Listening.

Casual Listening can be as simple as walking by and overhearing  something that triggers those primal emotions and prompts that person to ask someone else about it, thus unintentionally spreading a rumor. This can be initiated deliberately by the Culprit and/or Accomplice to hold such talk in the presence of others who may not indulge directly in gossip. Be aware of this!


Also, take into consideration the timing of rumors. They generally take place during times of high anxiety. Rumors can be used to manage, dominate and control people. This is why those of us who study the Holy Quran are urged to seek refuge from anxiety and grief and fear. This is what Minister Jabril Muhammad mentioned in his book, Closing the Gap: Inner Views of the Heart, Mind & Soul of the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan, when he spoke about how mood affects our perception.  Minister Farrakhan stated, “So I would imagine that in order to perceive anything correctly, we must first check the state of mind we are in, then ask ourselves, how much we do know about that at which we are looking at?”

Be mindful of who you share personal information with. When people know your emotional triggers, they can manipulate your thoughts based on what you’ve shared with them. With your emotions, they can make you love or hate someone.

There are those who believe and spread rumors about something or someone they dislike, because it validates their personal feelings towards that person or a past experience that has been triggered. These individuals are more easily manipulated, because they are less likely to consider facts or logic or other perspectives outside of their own. They are less likely to question the source, because it feeds into or appears to agree with their emotions that have gone unresolved. They link one unrelated situation to something or someone in present time that may carry a similar tone or theme. Therefore, where one begins and ends becomes blurred and that individual becomes deeply involved and unaware of why and can be triggered over and over again. The Culprit and/or Accomplice can re-activate emotions like a switch.


At the root of how and why rumors spread is the individual or individuals  who have allowed boredom to set into their lives. This is when one is uninspired, uninvolved and unenthusiastic about pursuing their purpose in life. Those who are constantly plugged into the deets of other people’s life, sports, T.V. drama, gossip blogs, celebrity social media and remain unplugged from discovering their divine purpose and mission in life. These individuals are prime targets for rumors.

I’ve heard responses to the above as, “It’s just entertainment, harmless fun, a way to unwind from stress”. The Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan says in Closing The Gap, that we don’t have time for trifling things. We should find fun in the discovery of things that grow us; that edify us; that evolved us toward God.

When we become more of an active participant in our divine purpose, we won’t be susceptible to and easily drawn into gossip, drama, slack talk and rumors. We will actually begin to repel those who are.

People with problems tend to talk about frivolous things and/or about other people. However, people who are pursuing purpose operate or think on a higher level and therefore are able to do greater things and accomplish more than the one who is operating beneath.

Where do you want to stand?


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