The Watercooler Effect: A Psychologist Explores the Extraordinary Power of Rumors
by Nicholas DiFonzo, Avery Publishing Group, 291 pages, $24.95, Hardcover, September 2008, ISBN 9781583333259
We have an open-plan office; the majority of the staff is situated in one main room, without cubical walls or even much distance to separate employees. This concept has worked well for us. It allows employees to communicate more, whether it's to find solutions to problems in real-time, discuss current events, or merely share their experiences both inside and outside of work. Despite the occasional, inevitable tiff that happens when space is shared, this ability to communicate freely strengthens the family bond central to this company's success. In other offices, this type of socializing is more limited, taking place around the proverbial watercooler, and is a large factor in what makes work life enjoyable and motivating. Yet, as we all know, putting a group of diverse people together in a workplace can also lead to social side effects.
In The Watercooler Effect
, psychologist Nicholas DiFonzo examines the power of hearsay and rumors to develop and spread wherever people come together. He, like many theorists, philosophers, and psychologists before him, sees humans as social beings who are constantly engaged in sensemaking. He explains that we "possess an irrepressible instinct to make sense of the world. Put these ideas together and we get shared sensemaking: We make sense of life together." And one reason that rumors get so much traction, DiFonzo claims, is because "[r]umor is perhaps the quintessential shared sensemaking activity. It may indeed be the predominant means by which we make sense of the world together."
Surprisingly, DiFonzo explores the potential of rumors to cause good as well as harm. He seeks to understand what value they offer, because, as he suggests, "If they lead to important changes in what people do, say, or think, then it is essential to understand how they operate." The Watercooler Effect
is filled with useful, often recognizable examples of rumors in action, happening at the watercooler, in community groups, on Wall Street. DiFonzo does an excellent job of distilling the complexities of rumors while also offering suggestions on ways to avoid or squelch harmful rumors. You'll come away from this book a little more curious and perhaps a little more cautious about the next unsubstantiated tidbit of information you pass along.