Recently, I was playing Cards Against Humanity with friends. One of the scenarios played involved a famous historical leader and some figgy pudding. As we read the statement aloud, for some reason (aka red wine) it sounded strangely profound. Someone suggested we put it up on social media and attribute it to Gandhi or Churchill. We were certain it would go viral.
The thing about so many of the quotations we see posted online is that they are about as authentic as our Cards Against Humanity fabrication. Many of the well-known quotations that routinely get slapped on coffee mugs and fridge magnets are just plain wrong. Someone must have come up with that profound line, but rarely was it Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Jr., or Abraham Lincoln.
Here are five reasons I believe we gravitate towards pithy quotes from famous people, even if they aren't true.
1. It is comforting to think that certain people are capable of speaking wise, universal truths.
Basically we are all just trying to muddle through the day with as much dignity as possible, and it's nice to think that somewhere there are people who are capable of more. When we see impressive people, we desperately want their guidance. We want to hear what they, who seem so much wiser than their peers, have to say. Take Eleanor Roosevelt, who was an amazing, accomplished woman. She reportedly said:
A woman is like a tea bag: you never know how strong she is until she gets in hot water.
For those of us in the midst of struggle, this is like salve on a wound. She struggled, she prevailed, and therefore so can we. The trouble is that, in spite of it sounding like the sort of feisty thing Roosevelt might say, she never said it. Quote Investigator tracks down the origins of these rogue quotes. The teabag quote misattributed to Roosevelt is most likely an Irish proverb dating from around 1860 but because it sounds like something Roosevelt would say, was attributed to her somewhere along the way. Similarly, "Well-behaved women seldom make history," has been attributed to Marilyn Monroe, May West, and, of course, Eleanor Roosevelt. It was really written by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, who, in spite of being a Harvard professor and Pulitzer-prize winning author, is apparently not quite enough of a household name to be featured on a fridge magnet.
2. People would rather believe something incongruous that was written by someone famous than something congruous written by someone who isn't.
There are many quotes out there that do not seem as though they could possibly have come from the reported source, and yet we believe them too. There is a quote from Pope Francis currently making the rounds wherein he states that you do not need to believe in God. It struck me as something quite odd for the head of the Catholic Church to say. Sure enough, the quote was debunked by Snopes. One of my favourites is a quote attributed to Kurt Vonnegut:
Be soft. Do not let the world make you hard. Do not let the pain make you hate. Do not let the bitterness steal your sweetness. Take pride that even though the rest of the world may disagree, you still believe it to be a beautiful place.
When you compare it to the stark prose of Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, it seems like a bit of a mismatch. The real quote is from writer Iain S. Thomas but you can find Vonnegut attributions everywhere. It seems that we'd rather have a fake quote from an icon, than a real quote from someone else.
3. We want our heroes to be perfect and when they are not perfect enough, we just edit them.
Any gift shop worth its salt sells some sort of item emblazoned with Gandhi's inspirational quote:
Be the change you wish to see in the world.
Unfortunately, Gandhi never said this. According to Waylon Lewis's piece in Elephant Journal, what Gandhi said was:
If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. ... We need not wait to see what others do.
It's a nice quote, but does not look nearly as good on a bumper sticker. It's kind of depressing that the world does not consider Gandhi to be Gandhi enough. It creates a lot of pressure for the rest of us.
4. Men's words carry more weight than women's.
For a long time in our history, women were not believed to be capable of things like voting, running for office, running a company, or saying great things. So, for a long time, men got a lot of the quote credit. Maseena Ziegler wrote a fascinating piece for Forbes titled, 7 Famous Quotes You Definitely Didn't Know Were From Women. Thomas Edison's quote, "Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration" was more likely said by 1890's academic Kate Sanborn. Ralph Waldo Emerson never wrote, "Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail." The credit should go to poet Muriel Strode. The oft quoted, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it" was not Voltaire, but Evelyn Beatrice Hall.
5. Once you say a few things well, people will give you credit for more.
Mark Twain is one of the most quoted, and most misquoted, writers. "The only two certainties in life are death and taxes" was not said by Mark Twain nor was "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics." (For more, read Mental Floss's 10 Things Mark Twain Didn't Really Say.) Mark Twain said a lot of brilliant things and, because he did, we are willing to give him the credit for many more. The takeaway here is that you only have to be really good a few times and then people will give you credit for everything else.
That final point is actually kind of comforting, but please don't quote me on that.