Monday, May 16, 2011

The curious thing about chain e-mails

I have never gotten a chain e-mail offering advice (health or viruses) that was true. (Ok, maybe 1) but 99% seem made up. And every single one of these showed up with a quick google search that usually points to

So as an economist, this is curious for two reasons.

1) There are certainly legitimate health warnings or virus warnings out there. How come none of them get spread?

2) I could imagine if there were some probability that messages were true, that people would find it costly to tell the difference, and I could imagine an equilibrium existing where a mix of true and false messages co-exist. But it is harder to imagine such an equilibrium when 100% are false.

Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others DieA past co-author of mine, Chip Heath has actually studied these things (at least the first one). I haven't read those papers yet, though I am reading his popular book Made to Stick.


James Lin said...

A few things:

Things that are true (and that are currently relevant) are probably already being reported by the mainstream news. That reduces the incentive to spread factual e-mails. It also might increase the incentive to spread false rumors ("Oh, I hadn't heard about this elsewhere; I bet my friends haven't heard it either!").

Consequently, I also would expect that few factual chain e-mails get written in the first place.

HoBs said...

yeah could be. but people are happy to e-mail stories from mainstream news, its just those never become chain e-mails that get passed around for years.