Emailed Health Warnings: Hoax or Fact?
Is that email message alerting you to a new health hazard bogus or valid?
Why Do We Fall for These?
It's easy to be sucked in by messages alerting us to health dangers.
"These are 'wow' stories," says Buhler, " ... as in 'Wow, did you
hear about Britney Spears?' or 'Wow you should have seen the accident I saw on
And they sound legitimate, often claiming to come from a reputable hospital,
physician, or health organization -- even though the sources named often turn
out to be fictitious.
Today's climate is often one of anxiety when it comes to our health,
furthering the belief that the health warning could be true, even if it sounds
unlikely. "Whoever thought you could get sick and die from eating
spinach?" Mikkelson asks.
Why Do We Forward the Emails?
After reading the fearful news, there's often a knee-jerk reaction to share
it, says Pauline Wallin, PhD, a clinical psychologist and life coach in Camp
Hill, Pa. An emailed health alert may come with a "hook," she
says. "It often includes a personal story about someone. It arouses
our emotions -- outrage, greed, or fear."
So when the message then begs the recipient to "share this with everyone
you know," it's human nature to do so, she says. "When you are
emotionally aroused, you are more vulnerable to do what an authority tells you
to do," she says. Taking action may be a way to help quell your
Forwarding the news might boost a sender's sense of importance among
friends. "Some people like to be the town crier, the first one to tell
their friends something they might not have heard," Buhler says.
"Others send them for sincere reason of concern."
How to Spot the Next One -- Maybe
How to avoid getting fooled next time? There's no foolproof method, but
experts have some suggestions on how to spot the hoaxes.
"If the email is the only place you are seeing it [information about the
hazard], there is a reason," says Jeff Stier, spokesman for the American
Council on Science and Health, in New York. If you don't see or hear the same
information on the nightly news, a mainstream newspaper, or a credible web
site, be suspicious, he says.