Legendary Subjects

May/June 2002

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Ever hear the one about Snapple’s support of the KKK? Or the one about the people unwittingly eating their own dog at a Chinese restaurant? Chip Heath, an associate professor of organizational behavior at the Graduate School of Business, says there’s a simple explanation for why we choose to pass urban legends on and on and on.

“They’re selected not because they’re true, but because they punch emotional buttons,” Heath, PhD ’91, says.

In a paper published in the December Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Heath and two colleagues explore how these tales gain currency without PR reps or commercial jingles. Several heavily visited websites, including and, even exist to debunk them.

Heath’s study homes in on urban legends that evoke disgust, since 25 percent incorporate some repulsive element (rats are a common motif). It’s unlikely that a big hairy rodent was ever the surprise at the bottom of someone’s Coke can, but the story has been bandied around for 30 years now. For one part of his study, Heath tweaked the legend and found that the yuckier the version—say, there was actual rat-to-mouth contact—the more likely it would get remembered and retold.

Traditional theories hold that urban legends proliferate in environments of heightened anxiety. The September 11 terrorist attacks unleashed a deluge of rumors, such as the one about a woman’s Afghan boyfriend who warned her not to fly on the 11th and to steer clear of shopping malls on Halloween. But Heath concludes that people are internally driven to pass these tales on as a way to share all sorts of emotions; it doesn’t take an atmosphere of extreme fear to make people retell legends, whether they can verify them or not.

“If we can understand that as a process, then we can understand why unscary information will propagate successfully,” he says. His research may, for example, help public health experts circulate information about good practices. But it seems particularly suited for fledgling entrepreneurs at the Business School, where Heath teaches a course on how to make ideas stick. Now, if they’d only learn to work a rat in there . . .

—Marisa Milanese, ’93

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