New research by Blaine and Boyer in Evolution and Human Behavior
Have you ever heard that rumor about alligators swimming in the sewers of New York City? Or that Pokémon Go is tricking people into taking pictures of their private lives for the government? Around the world, it is common to hear people discuss odd rumors, myths, and urban legends. However, reasons for the cultural persistence of these bizarre stories remain a mystery.
In a series of studies, Timothy Blaine and Pascal Boyer of Washington University in St. Louis found that people prefer to share information about potential danger over other kinds of negative information, even when that danger is extremely unlikely to occur. This differentiates their finding from a general negativity bias, which is a claim that people pay more attention to negative things than positive things. Instead, they identify a more specific bias towards threat information: people really want to tell other people about threatening things, even when a person is way less likely to encounter a threatening thing than a non-threatening negative thing. Blaine and Boyer also found that people prefer to hear more about threat information over other kinds of negative and positive information, so this preference appears on both on the sending and receiving ends of cultural transmission.
A preference for threat information makes functional sense, but their findings with regard to likelihood is particularly surprise because it might otherwise be assumed that people evolved to share information based on relevance or usefulness. Looking forward, Blaine and Boyer are curious to learn what makes threat information so valued.
Timothy Blaine is the Memory & Development Laboratory Manager and works with Professor Pascal Boyer, a Professor of Sociocultural Anthropology and Psychology. Read more about their research in Evolution and Human Behavior:
Blaine, T., & Boyer, P. (2017). Origins of sinister rumors: A preference for threat-related material in the supply and demand of information. Evolution and Human Behavior.