Some urban legends are meant to last forever.
Days ago, I was happily driving my Subaru Forester, with my radio tuned on 97.1: The FM Talk Station. On The Sheena and Sam Show, Samantha Phillips reminded her audience how the Italians make sure that their noodles are ready: by throwing them up on the ceiling and see if they stick to it.
I've heard this so many times I am wondering how this tale originated. In fact, right after I moved to the USA, I was approached by some Mormon elders, who promptly asked me if that is really how Italians check if their pasta is "al dente".
The truth is, once an urban legend is firmly established, it can be extremely hard to eradicate it. And how challenging would it be to create a story and make it become the next urban legend?
Dr. Claudio Ciaravolo, a smart Neapolitan psychiatrist, has mastered both arts and apparently created a new profession out of this. As a VoiceBuster he will set out to deactivate an existing urban legend, and as a VoiceMaker he will create a new one.
A few years back, Italy introduced laws that mandate the use of safety belts in cars. As usual, the Italians were very reluctant to obey the law and very few people would wear safety belts in cars. Claudio Ciaravolo singlehandedly invented the Maglietta di Sicurezza (Safety T-Shirt), a.k.a. Ciaravoletta, and eventually managed to make the whole country believe that the Neapolitans were manufacturing and selling these t-shirts, so that they could drive without wearing a safety belt and without getting a ticket!
Despite the fact that this law, as most laws in Italy, is not especially enforced, most Italians believed the story because they picture the Neapolitans as artfully cunning people par excellence.
Claudio Ciaravolo even appeared on a popular midday TV show, Sgarbi Quotidiani, hosted by art critic and member of the Italian Parliament Vittorio Sgarbi, explaining how he introduced the urban legend, but this was not enough to eradicate it.
The Italians do not believe in law enforcement based on fear, so this urban legend was later exploited by the Italian government in a campaign aimed at persuading people to use safety belts.
In a web page available in Italian only, Dr. Ciaravolo explains in detail how he designed the campaign to influence people toward the desired behavior. He starts by observing how certain behaviors are determined not by rational thinking, but by social pressure and emotional factors. Instead of trying to convey a rational message, which people will keep ignoring, the campaign uses mechanisms employed during hypnosis: the short-circuiting of the rational mind by use of a paradox, in order to deliver a hidden communication that will appeal to our emotional self.
In order to effect change, whether in a whole country or in an organization, one has to confront the irrational side of humans. In the influential book Peopleware, the authors state:
Don't count on logic, by the way, as your trump card: These on-the-fence, maybe-baby allies are never going to be swayed solely by a rational discussion of why the proposed new way will be so much better than the current situation. Here is something to repeat to yourself whenever you set out to ask people to change:Now I'm looking forward to going back to Italy, to see if people have taken to wearing safety belts. As for throwing pasta around the kitchen, I have no hopes, really.
The fundamental response to change is not logical, but emotional.
Update: On Tuesday, April 3, 2001 I was driving my sister's car around Via Castelmorrone, in Milan. I was looking for a parking spot, and in Italy that always takes a little while. (As a matter of fact, a few days later I was hunting for a parking spot near the center of Verona; I ended up driving for a couple of hours and even managed to get lost in the maze of twisty little passages that is the heart of the city, but don't ask me how I managed to get in, or out.) Anyway, the radio was tuned on RTL 102.5, and the radio host at some point mentioned the Neapolitan Safety T-Shirt as if it were a real thing!
And to continue with more: Urban Legends Reference Pages and Urban Legends and Folklore.