The Science of Superstition: How the Developing Brain Creates Supernatural Beliefs

The Science of Superstition: How the Developing Brain Creates Supernatural Beliefs

by Bruce M. Hood


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“In an account chock full of real-world examples reinforced by experimental research, Hood’s marvelous book is an important contribution to the psychological literature that is revealing the actuality of our very irrational human nature.” — Science

In the vein of Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, Mary Roach’s Spook, and Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational, The Science of Superstition uses hard science to explain pervasive irrational beliefs and behaviors: from the superstitious rituals of sports stars, to the depreciated value of houses where murders were committed, to the adoration of Elvis.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780061452659
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 06/29/2010
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 749,945
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

BRUCE HOOD is the author of The Science of Superstition and is one of the leading international authorities on child development and supernatural thinking in adults. He has a PhD from the University of Cambridge and has been a faculty member at UCL and Harvard and was a visiting scientist at MIT. He is currently the chair of developmental psychology at Bristol University in England and director of the Bristol Cognitive Development Centre. Born in Toronto, he now lives in Bristol, England.

Read an Excerpt

Why We Believe in the Unbelievable

Chapter One

What Secret Do John McEnroe and David Beckham Share?

Weird stuff happens all the time. Some years ago, before we were married, Kim and I traveled to London. It was our first trip to the capital, and we decided to use the Underground. London's Underground train system transports more than three million passengers every single day, and so we were relieved to find two seats together inside one of the crowded carriages. As we settled down, I looked up to read the various advertisements, as one does to avoid direct eye contact with fellow passengers, but I noted that the young man seated opposite seemed vaguely familiar. I nudged Kim and said that the man looked remarkably like her brother, whom we last heard was traveling in South America. It had been years since we last saw him. Kim stared at the man, and at that instant the man looked up from the paper he was reading and returned the stare. For what seemed a very long time, the two held each other's gaze before the quizzical expression on the man's face turned to a smile and he said, "Kim?" Brother and sister could not believe their chance encounter.

Most of us have experienced something similar. At dinner parties, guests exchange stories about strange events and coincidences that have happened either to them or, more typically, to someone else they know. They talk about events that are peculiar or seem beyond reasonable explanation. They describe examples of knowing or sensing things either before they happen or over great distances of time and space. They talk of feeling energies or auras associated with people, places, and things that givethem a creepy sensation. They talk about ghosts and sensing the dead. It is precisely because these experiences are so weird that they are brought up in conversation. Pierre Le Loyer captured this notion well four hundred years ago in writing about spirits and the supernatural when he said: "It is the topic that people most readily discuss and on which they linger the longest because of the abundance of examples, the subject being fine and pleasing and the discussion the least tedious that can be found."1

Most of us have had these bizarre experiences. Have you ever run into a long-lost friend in the most unlikely place? How often have you thought of someone only to receive a phone call from that person out of the blue? Sometimes it seems as if thoughts are physical things that can leap from one mind to another. How often have two people puzzled and said, "I was just thinking the same thing!" Many of us feel that there is something strange going on. Humans appear synchronized at times, as if they were joined together by invisible bonds. Some of us get a sense that there are mysterious forces operating in the world, acting to connect us together, that cannot be explained away. How do we make sense of all these common experiences?

Many people believe that such occurrences are proof of the supernatural. Beliefs may turn out to be true or false, but supernatural beliefs are special. To be true, they would violate the natural laws that govern our world. Hence, they are supernatural. For example, I may believe that the British Secret Service murdered Princess Diana in a car crash in Paris. That belief may be true or false. Maybe they did and maybe they did not. It's not impossible. To be true, my belief would have to not violate any natural laws. All that would have been required was a very elaborate plan and cover-up. So it is possible that the British Secret Service murdered Princess Diana—but unlikely. However, if I believe that someone can communicate with the dead princess, then that would be a supernatural belief because it violates our natural understanding of how communication between two people works. They usually both have to be alive. As Michael Shermer says, "We can all talk to the dead. It's getting them to talk back that's the hard part."2

People can be fully aware that their beliefs are supernatural and yet they continue to believe. Why do people believe in things that go against natural laws? It cannot simply be ignorance.

The answer is evidence. The number-one reason given by people who believe in the supernatural is personal experience.3 Of course, other people influence what we think, but firsthand experience gives us a mighty powerful reason to believe. As they say, "Seeing is believing," and when it happens to you, it proves what you suspected all along.

For believers, examples of the supernatural are so plentiful and convincing that to simply ignore all the evidence is to bury our heads in the sand. But is there really such an abundance of examples of the supernatural? One major problem is that we are simply not good at estimating the likelihood of how often weird stuff happens. We tend to overestimate the likelihood of events that are very rare, such as being killed in a plane crash. At the same time, we underestimate the likelihood of events that are really quite common. For example, what is the likelihood of two strangers at a party sharing the same birthday? Let's say you're the sociable type and attend a party about once a week. Take a guess at how many people have to be at a party for two of them to share a birthday at half the parties you attend throughout the year. What sort of number do you think you would need? I imagine most of you have come up with quite a big number. But would you believe that statisticians tell us the minimum number is only twenty-three! If you go to a different party each week, with at least twenty-three new people at each, on average two people will have the same birthday half of the time. Or to put it another way, among the thirty . . .

Why We Believe in the Unbelievable
. Copyright (c) by Bruce Hood . Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.\

Table of Contents

Prologue: Why Do We Demolish Evil Houses? v

1 What Secret Do John McEnroe and David Beckham Share? 1

2 Could You Wear a Killer's Cardigan? 21

3 Who Created Creationism? 37

4 Blooming, Buzzing Babies 73

5 Mind Reading 101 107

6 Freak Accidents 135

7 Would You Willingly Receive a Heart Transplant from a Murderer? 167

8 Why Do Travelling Salesmen Sleep with Teddy Bears? 197

9 The Biology of Belief 223

10 Would You Let Your Wife Sleep with Robert Redford? 249

Epilogue 255

Acknowledgments 257

Source Notes 259

Index 289\

What People are Saying About This

Susan A. Gelman

Dr. Hood, a world-class scholar in the field of cognitive science, explains the many weird and wonderful ways that we humans naturally view the world as ruled by supernatural phenomena. Bruce Hood’s SuperSense is sensational.

Paul Bloom

In recent years, there has been a lot written about religion, superstition, and faith, but there has never been a book like this. . . SuperSense is a joy to read—beautifully written, deeply clever and funny, replete with brilliant insights and observations.

Susan Blackmore

If we understood our own irrationality, and why so many people believe in ghosts, spirits, and invisible powers, then we might be able to improve the way we think. With quirkily fun examples and fascinating experiments Bruce Hood explains why we can’t always escape our Supersense.

Marc Hauser

Supersense is a terrifically fun read. But it is much more: though we may forever believe in ghosts, goblins and the beneficent deities, with a dose of skeptical scientific realism, a la Hood, there is hope that sanity will prevail.

Ori Brafman

Reading SuperSense is like having lunch with your favorite professor—the conversation spans religion, biology, psychology, philosophy, and early childhood development. One thing is for sure, you’ll never see the world in the same way again.

Paul Broks

Magical thinking is a defining feature of the human mindthe source of all that is sublime and absurd about our species. In this timely exploration of the psychology of irrational belief Bruce Hood pulls off the rare feat of being both authoritative and wonderfully entertaining. Brilliant.

Guy Claxton

Read this beautifully written book, and you will lose some childhood innocence about how the world works. But, it will leave you wiser about yourself, and what it is to be human.

Steven Pinker

An intriguing look at a feature of the human mind that is subtle in its operation but profound in its consequences.

Daniel M. Wegner

A compelling account of how beliefs in the supernatural world spring from the natural way our minds make sense of our experiences.

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Science of Superstition: How the Developing Brain Creates Supernatural Beliefs 3.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The author makes very valid points about how we as humans have a disposition for seeing patterns where they may not be evident. His conclusion about that it it leads us to believe in things despite a lack of evidence. He attributes this to a supersense which by his definition is superstition. However, that supersense could be the foundation of scientific discovery, and he seemed to dismiss that aspect. Overall an insightful book and interesting theory.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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