Sunday, March 21, 2010

Urban Legends

Authenticity and StoryTelling
"It's all storytelling, you know. That's what journalism is all about." ~ Tom Brockaw,  Northwestern University Byline, Spring 1982

Storytelling has existed from our very earliest ancestors. Word-of-mouth or the “oral-tradition” has been the very basis of our cultural mythologies. Tribes told “stories”, myths evolved, "old wives tales" were passed down generation to generation and eventually fairy tales developed and were written down. In addition to cultural stories, family myths developed and were passed down one generation to the next, sometimes embellished. As a species, we humans keep alive our messages to one another through communicating and through story.

Cultural Norms
There is a story I often tell when teaching about cultural norms that become outdated yet continue to live on. I heard it as a story then customize it to match my family history. My version goes something like this:

Every holiday, for as long as I can remember, my mother would prepare a special meal. Favored by eveyone was a wonderful ham, the recipe passed down from my grandmother and from her mother before her. Every year Mom would take the ham, cut off about 3”, cover both pieces in a combination of spices, and bake side by side. Always cooked to perfection, it was a family favorite.

One year, a friend came to share in the holiday and asked why the ham was cut into 2 pieces. My mom responded with various reasons, "it's better that way", "each piece gets more heat and is crispier", etc. but eventually came to, "that’s the way it’s always been done". My Aunt Annie, who is a bit older than my Mom, chimed in, “well, that’s the way Grandma did it." 

The answer was simple, Grandma immigrated from Italy and lived through the great depression. They only had ONE SIZE ROASTING PAN, so they had to cut the ham to fit it. Though enough years had passed, and we could all afford multiple roasting pans, everyone was still doing it the way they were taught, “because that’s the way it’s always been done.”

Family Myths and More
Whether family or cultural, stories are shared one to another representing a "truth" that has some importance. Tom Saunders explores this in his article, Family Mythology: The Final Frontier: "family mythology as stories of explanation which family systems develop as "truth" about how its members interact" (Saunders, 1992). My story above can reveal several "truths"depending on my purpose for telling the tale, one being how the system resisted change and awareness about learning to adapt. The "truth" is that the story above is a STORY - never happened in the way or with the characters detailed but is adapted and customized to serve a purpose.

There is an element of "truth" that is maleable in service of an important message. It is human nature to tell, to share, to communicate. Our earliest stories were cave images. As I was growing up it was pictured as folks around a fire, and talking over a fence. In fact, as an organizational development consultant, we referred to this tendency in organizations as "water cooler" conversations, it's the stories, rumors and undercurrent that gets shared, distorted, and then proliferates in the company, much like the old telephone game.

Myths and Urban Legends at the Speed of the Internet
The digital age, the speed of the Internet, and the ease in communicating has fueled the development of storytelling and its distortion in the form of Urban Legends. These stories and legends have a common purpose: to somehow generate an emotional hook. Many are based on fear, caution or unusual circumstances of some kind, an example of phishing that I shared on the forum is a good example.

As I explored many components about our current day Urban Legends, the definition I most resonated with from Princeton Web: a story that appears mysteriously and spreads spontaneously in various forms and is usually false; contains elements of humor or horror and is popularly believed to be true. Looked at objectively, these stories tend to be unbelievable or another version is "to good to be true." Often playing upon our emotions in order to control behavior or to illicit some kind of response. A good example is the story about a "hook-hand killer" which began in the 1950s and has had many versions. It's primary purpose was to warn, caution and prevent premarital intimacy specifically in cars.

Authenticity - True or Not
So many of the urban legends that circulate the web have elements of truth. The more plausible stories have just enough detail and just enough truth to bypass our internal discernment. Cognitive dissonance allows us to overlook information that doesn't fit when enough of the story does fit. So perhaps the best way to assess is with objective and critical thinking.

Along with the "debunking" sites, and, I found Shermer's Baloney Detection Kit very helpful to this end.
  1. How reliable is the source of the claim?
  2. Does the source make similar claims? (eg. if you are into magic (or evolution), then all your ideas have a magic (or evolution) bent)
  3. Have the claims been verified by somebody else?
  4. Does this fit with the way the world works?
  5. Has anyone tried to disprove the claim?
  6. Where does the preponderance of evidence point?
  7. Is the claimant playing by the rules of science
  8. Is the claimant providing positive evidence? (it's too easy to just bag the other side)
  9. Does the new theory account for as many phenomena as the old theory?
  10. Are personal beliefs driving the claim?