CBRIII Maneuver #22 – The Science of Superstition

Target: Bruce M. Hood’s The Science of Superstition

Profile: Non-fiction, Popular Psychology

Summary: From the back of the book, “In The Science of Superstition, cognitive psychologist Bruce Hood examines the way in which humans understand the supernatural, revealing what makes us believe in the unbelievable.”

After Action Report:

I’ve always enjoyed vigorous debate with those who don’t share my particular spiritual point of view.  While none of the people I’ve had good conversations with have fit into the most extreme fundamentalist brackets, I have noticed that more evangelical Christians seem to enjoy a kind of thinking that is circular at best.  I try not to just write these people off out of hand.  Their experiences are unknown to me and there may be very good and rational explanations for their unshakable faith.

Well, it turns out there are!

At the core of Bruce M. Hood’s engaging and amusing book is the idea that we are biologically inclined toward supernatural thought.  One of the many quirks of human thinking that makes us so vastly superior to thinking engines is our instinctive urge to group our experiences.  We see patterns everywhere.  If you’ve ever caught yourself staring at a monochrome tiled floor, engrossed in the patterns your eye produces, you know what Hood is talking about.  This ability is critical in our thinking process as it allows us to jump to conclusions about similar items and make educated guesses (hypotheses) about the world around us.

Hood argues that this same kind of thinking is at work in supernatural belief.  We have hundreds of supernatural beliefs that influence our actions, whether we admit it or not.  From superstitions involving ladders, mirrors or salt, to social taboos and personal rituals, we are hardwired to take comfort in repeated patterns and behaviors.  It isn’t uncommon to find out that your friends have little good luck items or practices but very few of us recognize these behaviors as supernatural.  But the step from good luck rituals to religious rites isn’t very big.  They’re all examples of us repeating unrelated events to try to ensure a better outcome, or avoid a negative one.

As a prelude, Hood talks about a lecture he gave where he produced a sweater and asked for volunteers from the audience to try it on.  He then explained that the sweater belonged to Fred West, a contemporary British serial killer.  Hood marked a dramatic decrease in volunteers every time he explained the (false) origin of the sweater.  The stunt bought him a great deal of attention, and when he was invited to give a seminar at a convention, he was received complaints about the demonstration.  Even though the artifact was a fake, people still had a problem with the very idea that the sweater could have been worn by a serial killer.

The point here is that we attribute all sorts of qualities to the things around us that have nothing to do with reality.  Not wanting to wear a serial killer’s sweater is exactly the same as the fervent belief that the bones of saints or fragments of their clothing have miraculous properties.  We grant a measure of the owner to the possession.  This and a hundred other little examples create a compelling rational explanation for all sorts of supernatural beliefs.

Hood explains his supersense with wit and alacrity.  The book reads quickly and smoothly and spends a fair amount of time entertaining us with jokes and asides.  At no point does Hood condemn either the supersense, or religion.  He is just explaining some of the biological and psychological facts that underlie our cognitive structure.  We are designed to seek meaning and pattern, so is it all that surprising that a great deal of human time and energy is dedicated to the grandest meaning we can reach for?  These same tools have enabled great thinkers to reach lofty scientific heights, when backed by logic and method.  He does comment on the attractiveness of religious thought to the developing minds of children and notes how kids raised in fundamentalist environments have more difficulty discerning the difference between a fact and a belief.  But even these cautions don’t read as chastisements.

The Science of Superstition is exactly that; a scientific exploration of the structures that give rise to supernatural thought.  It doesn’t try to tell us that we are weaker for our quirks, or that only science and logic hold the answers to rationality.  It is an excellent read and one that I’d recommend to anyone trying to come to grips with their personal spirituality or lack thereof.

Posted on May 26, 2011, in Cannonball Reviews and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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