Beware of the Granfalloon

In this week’s video I discuss my new favorite word — “Granfalloon” — and how identifying yourself with a particular group can distort your thinking.

34 Responses to Beware of the Granfalloon

  1. Brian Engler says:

    Point well taken, Julia. A trap easy to fall into, so one we need to stay aware of if we’re to remain the free and critical thinkers many of us claim to be. Thanks!

  2. Matt says:

    Good video, but very quiet audio.

    • Julia Galef says:

      Hmm, are you sure you turned up the audio all the way on Youtube and/or your computer? My computer audio is only at about 50% right now but it sounds plenty loud to me.

    • Julia Galef says:

      Actually, I just tried the video on a different computer and now it sounds really quiet, as you said. Drat! I’ll have to figure out what went wrong with the sound so I can fix it for next time.

  3. Graham says:

    I completely agree with this. It’s something I noticed when I was around 19 and had been strongly identifying with a hard leftist political ideology for a few years, I started to accept a lot of the positions I was espousing were really absurd and not supportable. I realized it was just because I’d applied a label to myself and felt compelled to agree with whatever I thought a good leftist ought to believe. I was pretty disappointed in myself, since I’d always professed to hold critical thinking as a high standard, and ever since then I’ve actively tried to disassociate myself from any type of group identity.

  4. Julia Galef says:

    Upon reflection, I wish I had phrased the ending a little differently. It sounded like I was implying that Democrats, liberals, and skeptics are examples of granfalloons… but they’re not. Since people in those groups share a common viewpoint, it’s not a meaningless association. But my point about the potentially distortionary effects of identifying with those groups still stands.

    • Max says:

      A common culture and history are not meaningless either. More meaningful than a common viewpoint. For every two Jews, there are three opinions, but they’re still family.

      Now, a Giants fan getting beaten into a coma at Dodger Stadium, that’s more like a granfalloon.

      • Julia Galef says:

        Max, in what sense are two Jews “family” if they don’t even know each other?

        As I was trying to explain, I’m willing to grant that it makes sense to feel some camaraderie with a stranger if you have a lot of shared experiences. But how much shared experience do any two secular Jews really have with each other? Even if both of them went to a Hebrew school, that still seems like a pretty weak excuse for camaraderie; pick a random stranger off the street and I can likely find some shared experience with him (we both went to summer camp! We both had a bird as a pet! We both played piano!).

      • davidad says:

        I don’t know whether it’s cultural, genetic, or other factors, but in the American context, a Jewish background seems to have a much stronger characteristic than a German, Scottish, or Irish background. Of course there are exceptions to every stereotype, but I perceive Jews as empirically both smarter and funnier than average, and both myself and my mother, despite having absolutely no Jewish background, have found that we have a highly disproportionate fraction of friends who are Jewish (and, mostly, secular).

        (A common explanation I have heard for this is that since the Jewish people have been collectively harassed for thousands of years, there has been some kind of Darwinian influence – perhaps literally, perhaps not – on the genetic or cultural “makeup” of the Jewish population, since Jews needed to be both clever and good-humored to thrive. Many consider this long history to be a good reason in and of itself for Jews to stick together; I would be more inclined to consider that as a granfalloon, but its result to be worthy of consideration.)

      • Julia Galef says:

        @davidad — I agree that Jews are more likely to have certain characteristics than non-Jews, although I wonder how much of that correlation would disappear once you control for level of education and urban/rural.
        The granfalloon effect would be at work, however, if I were to feel kinship with a fellow Jew regardless of whether they had those particular traits I like.

      • Max says:

        I was more than happy to have my cousin stay over at my place, even though I hadn’t talked to him since we were little. Blood is thicker than water.

      • Julia Galef says:

        @Max — Sure, wanting to help a cousin makes sense; not only are we (evolutionarily) predisposed to help close relatives, but that cousin is loved by people whom you care about. That gives you a natural incentive to look after him.

        But that’s pretty unrelated to my original question of why you should favor a stranger just because he’s Jewish. The familial ties between you and most other Jews in the world are pretty weak.

  5. Cory Albrecht says:

    Please forgive me, but I beg to differ – Canadians truly are the most polite people! (And I hope that isn’t too prideful of me…) 🙂

    But seriously, this is a really thought-provoking piece and, I must admit, a little uncomfortable for me. Like you, my ethnic heritage has been a source of pride for me and I’ve felt that camaraderie when I’ve met complete strangers who just happen to be Mennonite. As I sit here and think, I’m having difficulty coming up with reasons why “Mennonitism” is not a granfalloon that aren’t rationalizations. Yes, Mennonites have started wonderful organizations like Ten Thousand Villages and Mennonite Central Committee, but they are not unique organizations and we aren’t the only group of people to care about social justice issues.

    I have what I like to call my “onion of self identification”. At the centre I’m just “me”, then there’s a layer which is “Cory”, then a layer “part of freindschafts Albrecht, Nafziger, Schultz and Erb”, then the “Mennonite” layer, and so one. It’s a little disturbing to contemplate that one of the layers closest to the core might just be a granfalloon.

    Damn you (he said unconvincingly) and your intelligent and insightful video blog!

  6. Jeff Wagg says:

    Excellent video! I think this is a huge lesson for skeptics and especially over-proud atheists. Thanks very much, Julia.

  7. Aaron says:

    Kurt Vonnegut was born in Indiana, and he makes me proud of being a Hoosier!

  8. Max says:

    Is your family a granfalloon too?

  9. Max says:

    Why was there no looting in Japan, like there was in Haiti and New Orleans?

  10. Max says:

    Norm MacDonald on gay pride (NSFW)

  11. Max, how Jewish would I need to be to share in the sense of camaraderie? 1/32nd? 1/16th? Half?

    There’s a fine line between internalizing ethnic pride and valuing ethnic purity.

    • Max says:

      The strict definition says you’re Jewish if your mother is Jewish or you converted to Judaism. But putting that aside, do you know any 1/32nd Jews who still identify with Jews and feel ethnic pride? I think in that case, only anti-semites remind them of their lineage.

      • Do you really think you automatically have anything more in common with someone whose mother is ethnically Jewish than someone whose father is? Whose grandfather is? Whose great-grandfather is? And if you’re a secular Jew, why on earth would you have assume you had ANYTHING in common with a convert to Judaism?

      • Max says:

        Jews who fit the strict definition are far more likely to identify with Jews.
        One very basic thing most self-identified Jews have in common is they don’t want to see the Jewish people disappear.

      • Graham says:

        I’m not sure why you think that’s the case. Obviously if you convert to Judaism, you’re going to share some beliefs with other religious Jews. But just by being technically defined as Jewish by matrilineal heritage rules? I’m technically half-Jewish from my fathers side, but I wasn’t raised Jewish at all (until I was a teenager I wasn’t even aware of it) so I don’t feel any affinity for Jews over any other ethnicity. I can’t imagine why it would make a difference if it had happened to be from my mothers side.

      • What do you mean by “don’t want to see the Jewish people disappear”? Is it some crime against one’s heritage to reproduce with someone from a different ethnic background?

      • Max says:

        Intermarriage and assimilation do make ethnic groups go extinct, as does ethnic cleansing.

  12. Kevin says:

    This phenomenon is precisely why I registered to vote as an Independent.

  13. It sounded like I was implying that Democrats, liberals, and skeptics are examples of granfalloons… but they’re not. Since people in those groups share a common viewpoint, it’s not a meaningless association.

    Well, Democrat, liberal, and skeptic are different from most of the other categories you mentioned since those are umbrella terms to describe a bundle of views that you’ve presumably arrived at for good reasons. In contrast, the main reason you’re an American and a woman aren’t that you came up with certain views. You were born with these qualities.

    However, is there such a clear dividing line? If I told you: “Could you please do me a favor and stop being a liberal and skeptic, and instead be a conservative and an evangelical Christian,” could you do it? I doubt it. What if I added: “Oh, don’t worry, you only have to do it for one hour! Just please, sit around and believe conservative and evangelical Christian beliefs that are diametrically opposed to what you generally believe. Then you’re free to go right back to your usual beliefs.” No matter how much I shortened the timespan, or even if I offered you money, I’ll bet these enticements would just accentuate how preposterous the request is. (Of course, lying wouldn’t count; you can assume you’d have to take a 100% accurate lie detector test about your genuine beliefs.)

    Conversely, you didn’t choose to be born in America, but you do choose to stay in America. You have even more freedom about whether to stay in New York. I’ve readily picked up my stuff and moved from one part of the country to another. I would have a much harder time uprooting my philosophical or political or ethical tenets.

    Everyone is always choosing to do things that may or may not reinforce their gender identity. I’m sure I do it every day. For instance, today I decided I need a new bookbag, so I was looking for them online, all on different websites that have a section for women’s bags and a section for men’s bags. I looked only at the latter section, why? To fit my gender identity, of course. Is this a “meaningless” fact of my birth or was it a free choice? Well, that’s complicated. It was kind of both. I didn’t give it much thought. And I didn’t choose to be male. But I’m free to click on any links on the internet. So I did decide. You might say: “But you didn’t have much of a choice — you’d be ostracized if you went around as a man wearing a purse!” OK. But is that so different from the liberal who keeps espousing liberal views because all their friends are liberal? I’m not so sure.

  14. Lawrence says:

    jaltcoh: brilliant.

    say, it’s granfalloons all the way down, isn’t it?

    hmm. to the humanist, this is an appalling theory; it sucks all the specialness and magic out of being human.

    but to the quantitative philosopher (to quasi-coin a term), it’s wonderful. because what is math, after all, but the study of arbitary relations? “granfalloons all the way down” means that the arbitrary relations one studies can, once they’re advanced enough, show truth and value in the real world. the lonely academic’s artifice gave rise to a looking-glass; through it he sees paradise.

    to wit: granfalloons all the way up.

  15. David Schreier says:

    Good stuff Julia. Vonnegut’s idea that some groups are meaningless is a bit meaningless to me. But reconsidering, he was probably just as happy to ascribe meaninglessness to people and any other object of his attention. I guess I think that groups just are, and just like their constituents, they need to do things to ensure their survival.

    I see someone acting strange on a subway, I share a degree of empathy with them, just like I would with anyone from Elkhart IN, because I lived there for a bit. Place, like blood, and personality, just happens to be a basis for a group, human or otherwise

    I think a reasonable answer to the question posed by jaltcoh has to do with the incentives. Tell ten people they lose everything, including possibly their lives if they don’t come to identify with and believe what those with repelling beliefs believe. Give them 3 months. Would not be surprised if those people with better survival skills, better abilities to be social, etc, come around, and their numbers are greater than 5.

    Living amongst Cory’s Canadians in the heart of Mennonite country for a few years, I also remember how nice they were, but the undercurrents, oh the undercurrents, just not from the Mennonites, but any given granfalloonian Ontarian town. Canada has more Europe in it than can be found in the States, and there is classic anti-semitism there. It took on the form of offhand remarks, and also panicked looks from both male and female friends when they found out I was Jewish. It was fascinating as social study but did get a bit scary at times.

  16. Arthur says:

    it’s especially bad around Massachusetts when the sports teams are doing well….great word and useful idea…thanks!

  17. Pingback: Research community as Granfalloon | Robins view on Postmodernism

  18. kitchenmudge says:

    I hope everyone reads Cat’s Cradle at some time or another. “Granfalloon” can be found in my own tag cloud. “Karass” and “wampeter” can also be useful words.

  19. Pyrrhus says:

    I realize this is rather old, but it’s interesting so I’m going to comment anyways.

    I’m aware of the phenomena, and Steven Novella of the SGU wrote a little about it ( ), and their episode #319 deals with it. Novella thinks that it is basic human psychology to identify in this way, and that we probably can’t get away from it. The best we can do in his opinion is to channel this tendency in a positive direction, and he claims that he (perhaps not so surprisingly) self-identify as a skeptic. But you (Julia) appear not to be so fond of that either. Do you disagree with Novella that we can’t get away from it? How do you personally resolve this issue, if you mind telling?

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