The Granfalloon Technique

Extract from: Age Of Propaganda
“My God,” she said, “are you a Hoosier?”

I admitted I was.

“I’m a Hoosier, too,” she crowed.

“Nobody has to be ashamed of being a
“I’m not,” I said. “I never knew anybody who was.”
—Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle


“One of the most interesting and often most unbelievable set of findings in social psychology is induced by what has come to be known as the minimum group paradigm, which forms the basis of an emotionally powerful persuasive technique. In this procedure, first identified by the British social psychologist Henri Tajfel, complete strangers are formed into groups using the most trivial, inconsequential criteria imaginable.

For example, in one study, subjects watched a coin toss that randomly assigned them to Group X or Group W. In another study, subjects were first asked to express their opinions about painters they had never heard of and were then randomly assigned either to a group that appreciates Klee or to one that enjoys Kandinsky, ostensibly due to their picture preferences. To use a term coined by the American novelist Kurt Vonnegut, Tajfel and his colleagues are creating granfal-loons—proud and meaningless associations of human beings.

What makes TajfePs research so curious are the results that are often obtained. Despite the fact that the subjects were total strangers prior to the study, that they had never interacted with one another and never would, and that their actions were completely anonymous, they acted as if those who shared their meaningless label were their good friends or close kin. Subjects indicated that they liked those who shared their label. They rated others who shared their label as more likely to have a pleasant personality and to have produced better output than out-group members. Most strikingly, subjects allocated more money and rewards to those group members who shared their label and did so in a competitive manner—for example, subjects were more likely to prefer giving fellow group members $2 and the “other” group $1 rather than giving their group $3 and the other group $4.

What makes the granfalloon tick? Researchers have uncovered two basic psychological processes, one cognitive and one motivational. First, the knowledge that “I am in this group” is used to divide up and make sense of the world, much in the same way that words and labels can be used to pre-persuade (see Chapter 5). Differences between groups are exaggerated, whereas similarity among members of the granfalloon are emphasized in the secure knowledge that “this is what our type does.” One serious consequence is that out-group members are dehumanized; they are represented in our mind by a simple, often derogatory label—gook, jap, backward southerner, kike, nigger—as opposed to unique individuals—Nguyen, Susumu, Anthony, Elliot, Doug. It is a lot easier to abuse an abstraction. Second, social groups are a source of self-esteem and pride, a form of reverse Groucho Marxism—”I’d be more than happy to join a club that would have me as a member.”* To obtain the self-esteem the group has to offer, members come to defend the group and adopt its symbols, rituals, and beliefs.

Herein lies the secret to the persuasiveness of the granfalloon. If the professional persuader, the advertiser, the politician, the televan-gelist can get us to accept his or her granfallpons, then we have a ready-made way to make sense of our lives—the propagandist’s way— and as our self-esteem becomes increasingly linked to these groups, we have a strong motivation to defend the group and to go to great lengths proudly to adopt its customs. What the propagandist is really saying is: “You are on my side (never mind that I created the teams); now act like it and do what we say.” Let’s look at some specific examples of how granfalloons can be used to persuade.

A study by Robert Cialdini and his colleagues illustrates the attraction power of a granfalloon. Every autumn Saturday, many of America’s universities and colleges battle it out on the gridiron— half win and the other half lose. Cialdini and his colleagues counted the number of college sweatshirts worn on the Monday following a football game at seven universities that take football seriously— Arizona State, Louisiana State, Notre Dame, Michigan, Ohio State, Pittsburgh, and Southern California. The results: more students wore their university insignias after a victory, and especially after a big win. Nothing succeeds like a winning granfalloon. Is it any wonder that advertisers pay dearly to link their products with winners, such as Michael Jordan for sneakers or Christy Brinkley for makeup, and to create merchandise-selling granfalloons based on a designer label, movies such as Batman or Dick Tracy, or the latest Saturday morning cartoon?”


* Based on one of Groucho Marx’s legendary statements. On learning that he was admitted to an exclusive club, he remarked, “I would not want to belong to a club that would have me as a member.”

Extract from: Age Of Propaganda

A Pratkanis – E Aronson p167