The recent Academy Award winner for best documentary feature of 2012 was Searching for Sugar Man, the inspiring true story of Sixto “Sugar Man” Rodriguez, a 1970’s folksinger from Detroit who failed to reach success in the U.S. but who, unknown to him, became a counterculture icon in South Africa.
His adoring fans in South Africa, however, knew little about him; had never seen him. Rumors spread: He’d died, probably by suicide, which he committed onstage by setting himself on fire. Or did he shoot himself? Or overdose on heroin in an alley?
No one really knew; the rumors flew.
Besides appreciating this true tale of a talented “dead” star (who isn’t), it made me think about rumors of suicide and death—why do they start or persist? In a Psychology Today post Taylor Clark cites a variety of possible reasons—“8½” to be exact. They’re listed below, some with brief excerpted explanations.
1: Successful rumors needle our anxieties and emotions.
As Rochester Institute of Technology rumor expert Nicholas DiFonzo explains, we pass rumors around primarily as a means of deciphering scary, uncertain situations: Exchanging information, even if it’s ludicrously false, relieves our unease by giving us a sense that we at least know what’s happening.
2: Rumors stick if they’re somewhat surprising but still fit with our existing biases.
Even when presented with evidence refuting a rumor, we often stick to our biases. A 2007 University of Maryland study found that only 3 percent of Pakistanis believe Al Qaeda was responsible for 9/11.
3: Easily swayed people are more important than influential people in passing on a rumor.
4: The more you hear a rumor, the more you’ll buy it—even if you’re hearing that it’s false.
Even hearing that a rumor is bunk…tends to plant it deeper in your mind.
5: Rumors reflect the zeitgeist.
Rumors have the greatest chance of multiplying when the topic is something people are already pondering.
6: Sticky rumors are simple and concrete.
7: Rumors that last are difficult to disprove.
8: We are eager to believe bad things about people we envy.
And #8½? “Sometimes, there is no ‘why.’ Often, we tell remarkable tales to build relationships or show off our yarn-spinning prowess—not necessarily because we think they’re true.”
Why does Rodriguez himself think his death was so widely rumored—and so “gruesome?” He was asked this by Matt Pais, Chicago Tribune, and he replied:
I didn’t know what started these rumors … The thing is I always want to think that maybe it was a misinterpretation—’someone went out in a blaze of glory’ kind of thing. And so that’s read in words like ‘He went up in smoke’ or something. So maybe somebody interpreted it differently so it started sounding more gruesome.
Searching for Sugar Man begins in the 1990’s as a couple fans in South Africa try to solve the mystery behind the musician. Says Roger Ebert: “The information they eventually dislodge about Rodriguez suggests a secular saint, a deeply good man, whose music is the expression of a blessed inner being. I hope you’re able to see this film. You deserve to. And yes, it exists because we need for it to.”