Chain Forwarding Psychology 101:
The Mind of a Chronic Forwarder
One of the most frequently asked questions I get about chain letters is: "Why do people forward this crud?" My theory is that the psyche of a chronic chain-forwarder is influenced by the Simplicity Principle, the Valuation Scale and the Defense Factor.
The Simplicity Principle
The easier it is to believe or endorse something, the more willing people will be to do so. For instance:
- Share the same information with 10 friends and tell them to personally visit all their friends and share it with them, maybe one or two will do it.
- Similarly, ask 10 people to telephone their friends with the info, maybe 3-5 will do it.
- But ask them to forward it to others in an e-mail that you've already written and nearly all of them will do it.
The Valuation Scale
In the online world, our perceived value of information is influenced by several factors: the reliability of the source (or lack thereof), its apparent validity (or lack thereof), its apparent urgency, the subject matter and our opinions on it, etc. The more value we ascribe to certain information, the more effort we are willing to expend to share it. Conversely, if it's easy to pass information on, we value it more highly than if sharing it required a lot of effort.
Thus, you get the myriad forwards that are prefaced with "I don't know if this is for real, but it can't hurt to share." In other words I don't think this information is particularly valuable, but it's easy to send it to you, so I'll give it the benefit of the doubt. The less effort required, the more willing we are to take things on faith, because we believe we're not really out anything if we're wrong. The more effort, the more convinced we have to be to act on it.
The Defense Factor
As something gets easier to do, many people experience guilt or doubt at some level of consciousness. Oh, they won't admit it, or even realize that it is guilt or doubt, but it's there. For some, it's conscious and they can re-evaluate the task they're considering doing. These are your intrepid chain-breakers who strive to validate the information they receive before they share it with others.
For others, this guilt or doubt is buried more deeply and surfaces as defensiveness when their actions are questioned. These are the folks who act offended or hurt when you point out that the information they shared is not valid. They've convinced themselves that they're doing a good thing. When you call them on it, they are embarrassed and respond as any red-blooded human being would - they blame you! They'll say things like: "Why do you have to be such a spoil-sport?" "I was only trying to be helpful, why are you so ungrateful?" and "You must live a pretty dull life if all you have to do is question help others try to give you."
Simplicity, Valuation and Defense In Action
Your friend, let's call her Sue, receives a chain letter that warns of a "new car-jacking scheme." She knows it resembles an urban legend, but since the scenario seems feasible and the advice appears sound, she assigns enough value to the message to at least share it with her friends via e-mail.
You get it from her, look it up on BreakTheChain.org, and promptly send her the link to an article pointing out everything that's wrong with it. Unexpectedly, Sue replies back that your response hurt her feelings, that she was only trying to help, that she thinks you need to get a life and that, if this is the way you're going to be, then she just won't send you anything anymore.
For a brief moment, you consider how nice it would be to have one less person sending you chain letters. Then, you realize that you value your relationship with Sue too much to let it fall apart over a stupid chain letter that neither one of you even wrote. So, you try to patch things up by telling her how e-mail is unreliable and that she needs to look these things up before she sends them, but they still keep coming. Frustrated, you feel like having her take a long walk up a short pier...
Dealing With These Folks
The best way to address the chain letter problem with people caught in the simplicity-value-guilt loop is to realize that they do what they do because the information had sufficient value to them to expend a small amount of effort to share it. They get defensive because they think they did the right thing (even though, on some level, they may see that they shouldn't have sent the info).
Do not get defensive in return, this will only make them more defensive and escalate matters. To make them understand your point, you have to help deflect their guilt/doubt. Tell them that you appreciate them thinking of you, but it embarrasses you to see your friends falling for hoaxes, lies and half-truths. They did what they believed was right and you're doing what you think is right.
But, don't forget the Simplicity Principle. Do not try to make them do more work. For instance, don't give them a list of chain-breaking web sites to check things on their own. They'll never use it and it will only reinforce their perception that checking them out is "too hard." Instead (at least at first) offer to do the work for them. Tell them that you'd be more than willing to help them look these things up before they send them out.
Don't be surprised if they still don't get the point. Try using the Open Letter to E-mail Users, Forwarding Etiquette and C'Mon, What Can it Hurt articles to get your point across. Be ready to agree to disagree and never give up the fight to break the chain!