Why People Forward Chain Letters

Chris Garrett asked a question on twitter this morning:

Anyone know why people forward chain letters?

And since I’ve been doing some research on exactly that question recently, I thought I’d write a post detailing some of what I’ve found.

Probably the most important point is the idea that viral email chain letters are “virtual urban legends” and as such many of the motivations that cause people to spread urban legends are the same that make people forward those emails.

Many urban legends function as warnings, if you break with social rules and roles you will be punished. Go to lover’s lane with your boyfriend and a crazy serial killer will come and kill you or him (or both of you). Disregard your parents’ dislike of unhealthy fast food and you may end up eating a rat.

As I mentioned briefly in a post last week humans evolved with strong rewards to develop imitation and social learning skills. Evolutionarily, people have a motivation to be susceptible to social warnings and pass them on to their family and community.

In 1998 Edmund Chattoe published a paper for IRISS titled “Virtual Urban Legends: Investigating the Ecology of the World Wide Web” in it he studies traditional chain letters and virus warnings, and in it he cites an earlier paper by Woolgar and Russell (called “The Social Basis of Computer Viruses” I can’t find it on the web) when he says

users are rather inclined to believe in computer viruses as just ‘punishment’ for electronic promiscuity

Here the urban legend similarity is clear, if you disregard careful computer-based chastity and network with unsavory types (like downloading pirated music or programs) you’ll be punished with a computer virus.

Before email existed, chain letters propagated via snail mail and while they were still very virulent then, with the advent of the internet several factors changed which accelerated their spread. Obviously the speed of transmission and the ease at which someone can create and pass on a viral email is a lot greater than for traditional paper mail, and the anonymity of email reduces the risk to those who craft and continue the chains online.

Two of the key criterias of a successful meme are copying fidelity and fecundity, that is the less a message changes each time it is transmitted the greater the chance it has to retain the effective parts and continue spreading, and the more people it can be transmitted to the more successful it will be. Viral emails are copied verbatim and all the sender has to do is click “forward” and it an exact copy is sent to all of their friends.

In the paper mail chain letter world, most people had become immune to the over-the-top promises and demands so their effectiveness started to drop. With the ease of spread and the high copying fielding available to mental email viruses, they’ve been able to evolve into more subtle and unfalsifiable variations. The chances of a person passing the email on is great online, so the messages themselves need to require less instructions about their own replication, making them less obvious and more trustworthy. Chattoe says:

More generally, chain letters have increasingly stressed intangibles like ‘good luck’ rather than more concrete rewards. They thus render themselves immune from obvious falsification and tap into a human tendency to ‘superstition’, spotting patterns where none exist. If I fail to pass on a chain letter and shortly afterwards something bad happens, I may connect the two events and be more susceptible in future.

And while many (if not most) of these emails are debunked on sites like snopes, preliminary data from my survey shows that those who typically forward chain letters are typically less savvy users and may not know about snopes.

Perhaps the most subtle and powerful viral element of chain letters in email is the social proof that comes with many of them. Every time someone forwards one to his or her address book, another list of recipients and senders is attached to it, creating essentially a list of people who implicitly give authority to the message. If one person sends an email to another, the source may or may not be cited, and the sender’s reputation is the only real social authority the email carries, with a huge list of hundreds of others attached it, with popular viral emails, it suddenly appears that the message is common knowledge and the receiver is perhaps the only person left on the internet who wasn’t warned of the danger.

The social proof factor goes back to information cascades and the understanding that humans base many of their decisions on the choices of others, it just makes good evolutionary and survival sense to do so. Even if you may think an email is a hoax, who are you to think that you know better than hundreds of your peers? And on the off-chance the email was true, and you didn’t pass it on you didn’t do your best to protect and enrich your friends and family.