The Power of Myth

How Psychology Explains the Slander of Trayvon Martin

Jesse Singal on the psychological quirks that perpetuate rumors and twist facts in difficult cases.

Mario Tama / Getty Images

How can we explain the startling ferocity of the efforts to portray Trayvon Martin as a thug? As investigators continue to sort out why self-appointed neighborhood-watch captain George Zimmerman shot and killed the Florida teen last month, it’s hard not to become distraught at the extent to which a dead young man’s reputation has been gleefully dragged through the mud by so many people.

Any comment on the Martin case must be prefaced, of course, by the acknowledgment that we’re still operating with a real deficit of information here. Other than the video and audio recordings we’ve seen and heard, everything else is rampant speculation. But the rumors themselves are still worth examining because of what they can tell us about how the human mind works during a major news event.

It’s easy to focus on the nasty racial components, which are hard to deny. There has been a concerted online campaign to portray Martin as a “thug” despite a complete lack of evidence that he ever engaged in any sort of violence. Pundits and commentators are focusing on his appearance, his style of dress, and the stupid, very teenage things he said on his Twitter account. If they didn’t think these irrelevant details implied that Martin’s own actions contributed to his death, they wouldn’t be so intently focused on propagating them.

But while race is undeniably a factor in the power of the rumors, it’s not the only one, and the connection between race-related feelings and rumor-mongering is more complicated than it appears at first glance. If we’re actually going to understand why the Martin rumors exploded, we’re going to need some more-nuanced explanations.

Psychology is our friend here. Since rumors are such an important part of human life, from the boardroom to counterinsurgency efforts, psychologists have been studying for decades how they spread and what can be done to slow them down when they are false. They’ve also devoted a great deal of research to the proximal question of which pieces of information are most likely to stick out in our minds—the things we’re most likely to pass on to a friend.

One key factor here is the overwhelming lack of concrete information about what happened in the moments immediately before Zimmerman killed Martin. This makes the story inherently vulnerable to rumors, according to Rochester Institute of Technology psychologist Nick DiFonzo, an expert on rumor research and the author of The Watercooler Effect: A Psychologist Explores the Extraordinary Power of Rumors. “Whenever there’s a little bit of uncertainty and it doesn’t seem to make sense, people get very surprised when they hear this story, and they’re wondering, ‘Well, what? What happened? Why did it happen? That’s crazy,’ ” he said. “They’ll try to fill it in with rumors, speculation.”

We are inherently bothered by an incomplete story. When we see holes in a narrative, we do whatever we can to plug them with the tools we have at hand. Rumors are an excellent solution, because they can be shaped to fit any gap that we come across. "It’s hard to stay in an ambiguous mode and accept uncertainty," DiFonzo says. The more clear-cut a given story, the less likely it is to spawn rumors. “If people will supply some harder facts, it’s harder to wiggle,” he adds. “You have to wiggle around the new facts.” In the Martin case, there is an enormity of wiggle room.

So what makes a rumor likely to go viral? Partly, how easy it is for us to process cognitively—the extent to which it fits what we already “know.” For many Americans, unfortunately, what’s been revealed about Martin—that he was suspended for writing graffiti and being found with an empty marijuana bag, and that he was found with women’s jewelry (which he wasn’t disciplined for)—fits right into their preexisting notion that young black men are predisposed to criminality. So even though these details have zero bearing on the facts of this case, they are passed around excitedly by likeminded members of online social networks as though they explain something.

Another potentially powerful mechanism here is the so-called just-world hypothesis. Just as we have a powerful urge to complete stories with missing parts, we have a similarly powerful urge to see the world—and the stories we hear as we traverse it—as having some underlying force for justice guiding everything.

“People are strongly motivated to believe that the world is just—that people get what they deserve,” wrote Danny Oppenheimer, a professor of psychology at Princeton and the author of Democracy Despite Itself: Why a System That Shouldn't Work at All Works So Well, in an email. “So people want to believe that a victim deserved it, or brought it on him/herself.”

It’s an understandable impulse, but not always a helpful one. As science writer Jonah Lehrer put it, “we often rationalize injustices away, so that we can maintain our naïve belief in a just world.”

In this case, the idea of an unarmed teenager simply getting gunned down leaves our brains itching, in a sense, because it reeks of injustice. One way to scratch that itch is to decide that Martin did something to bring about the shooting—even if there’s no evidence to suggest this is the case.

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“If Trayvon was dangerous, then people can preserve the illusion that the world is just—if Trayvon was just an innocent kid, then that forces us to confront a harsh world that is psychologically much harder to deal with,” wrote Oppenheimer.

So it isn’t quite right to say that those who are convinced Trayvon must have been the instigator are necessarily racist. Rather, they’re trying to make sense of a tragedy, and the most straightforward, cognitively easy way to do so might be to assume that Martin must have done something that explains Zimmerman’s deadly aggression.

Neither of these two stories—one in which an innocent black teenager was shot because of a neighborhood-watch volunteer’s overly assertive “policing,” and the other in which a black teenager was shot and killed in part because he was acting suspiciously or aggressively—is a particularly happy tale. Neither calibrates with our highest ideals of justice. But one comes closer than the other, and that’s why, in some quarters, it’s the more popular of the two.

None of this is to say that race doesn’t play a huge role in how we sift and filter information and decide which pieces of it to pass on. Psychologists have known for a long time that racial stereotypes and cues can powerfully affect how we process information and weigh evidence—for our brains, race is a “shortcut” by which to quickly make sense of new information. It’s one of many ways in which our quickest, most reactionary forms of thinking don’t necessarily provide good results. So it’s unfortunate that these stereotypes are so pernicious, because our brains are, in key ways, predisposed toward racial prejudice, and this fact has never been clearer than in the Martin case.

It’s also worth pointing out that Martin’s supporters are just as prone to certain biases in how they handle the massive amount of information about this case circulating online. They’re more likely to circulate pictures of Zimmerman in which he looks scary, and to pass along the revelations that he had previous run-ins with the law, allegedly involving violence.

It's a tough thing to admit, but very few of us are as interested in objective reality as we think we are—we all have some sort of agenda when we parse emotionally loaded information.

“When it comes to deciding what we believe is true,” Oppenheimer wrote in his email, “whether or not it’s actually true isn’t nearly as important as whether we want to believe it.”