“Woman’s Butt Implants Explode While Doing Squats for an Instagram Workout Video.” This headline appeared on a fake-news Web site in July, only to be heedlessly picked up by other media outlets, thereby initiating one of the year’s most cringe-inducing urban legends. What leads a piece of modern folklore to gain such traction?
A number of studies have shown that humans tend to remember certain kinds of information better than others, such as knowledge that might keep us alive or help us find a mate. In one study, subjects were asked to read an urban legend, rewrite it from memory, and then pass their version to the next person (a sequence resembling a game of telephone). At the end of the chain, the legends whose themes could have social or survival-related utility (nudity, spiders, that kind of thing) were recalled most accurately—as evolutionary theory might predict .
Many popular myths carry implicit warnings. When researchers analyzed 220 urban legends, they found that the stories were much more likely to mention hazards than benefits. This makes sense: Because believing in a fake hazard is less harmful than failing to believe in a real one, evolutionarily speaking, we should err on the side of being overcredulous about threats. And indeed, the researchers reported, test subjects found statements about topics ranging from German shepherds to Lasik surgery more believable when they mentioned risks, like mauling or double vision .