Granfalloons etc.

A. R. Pratkanis

...attribute the statement to Nostradamus and the dynamics change. Nostradamus was a man who supposedly cured plague victims, predicted who would be pope, foretold the future of kings and queens, and even found a poor dog lost by the king’s page (Randi 1993). Such a great seer and prophet can’t be wrong. The implied message: The problem is with you; instead of questioning, why don’t you suspend your faulty, linear mind until you gain the needed insight?

4. Establish a Granfalloon

Where would a leader be without something to lead? Our next tactic supplies the answer: Establish what Kurt Vonnegut (1976) terms a “granfalloon,” a proud and meaningless association of human beings. One of social psychology’s most remarkable findings is the ease with which granfalloons can be created. For example, the social psychologist Henri Tajfel merely brought subjects into his lab, flipped a coin, and randomly assigned them to be labeled either Xs or Ws (Tajfel 1981; Turner 1987). At the end of the study, total strangers were acting as if those in their granfalloon were their close kin and those in the other group were their worst enemies.

Granfalloons are powerful propaganda devices because they are easy to create and, once established, the granfalloon defines social reality and maintains social identities. Information is dependent on the granfalloon. Since most granfalloons quickly develop outgroups, criticisms can be attributed to those “evil ones” outside the group, who are thus stifled. To maintain a desired social identity, such as that of a seeker or a New Age rebel, one must obey the dictates of the granfalloon and its leaders.

The classic séance can be viewed as an ad-hoc granfalloon. Note what happens as you sit in the dark and hear a thud. You are dependent on the group led by a medium for the interpretation of this sound. “What is it? A knee against the table or my long lost Uncle Ned? The group believes it is Uncle Ned. Rocking the boat would be impolite. Besides, I came here to be a seeker.”

Essential to the success of the granfalloon tactic is the creation of a shared social identity. In creating this identity, here are some things you might want to include:

5. Use Self-Generated Persuasion

Another tactic for promoting pseudoscience and one of the most powerful tactics identified by social psychologists is self-generated persuasion – the subtle design of the situation so that the targets persuade themselves. During World War II, Kurt Lewin (1947) was able to get Americans to eat more sweetbreads (veal and beef organ meats) by having them form groups to discuss how they could persuade others to eat sweetbreads.

Retailers selling so-called nutritional products have discovered this technique by turning customers into salespersons (Jarvis and Barrett 1993). To create a multilevel sales organization, the “nutrition” retailer recruits customers (who recruit still more customers) to serve as sales agents for the product. Customers are recruited as a test of their belief in the product or with the hope of making lots of money (often to buy more products). By trying to sell the product, the customer-turned-salesperson becomes more convinced of its worth. One multilevel leader tells his new sales agents to “answer all objections with testimonials. That’s the secret to motivating people” (Jarvis and Barrett 1993), and it is also the secret to convincing yourself.

6. Construct Vivid Appeals

Joseph Stalin once remarked: “The death of a single Russian soldier is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic.” (See Nisbett and Ross 1980.) In other words, a vividly presented case study or example can make a lasting impression. For example, the pseudosciences are replete with graphic stories of ships and planes caught in the Bermuda Triangle, space aliens examining the sexual parts of humans, weird goings-on in Borley Rectory or Amityville, New York, and psychic surgeons removing cancerous tumors.

A vivid presentation is likely to be very memorable and hard to refute. No matter how many logical arguments can be mustered to counter the pseudoscience claim, there remains that one graphic incident that comes quickly to mind to prompt the response: “Yeah, but what about that haunted house in New York? Hard to explain that.” One of the best ways to counter a vivid appeal is with an equally vivid counter appeal.

A. R. Pratkanis, ‘How to Sell a Pseudoscience,’ Skeptical Enquirer 19(4): 19-25 (1995).

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