A top British psychologist is attempting to explain the biological basis for superstitions.
Professor Bruce Hood of Bristol University, UK, says these so-called irrational beliefs are perfectly natural and entirely understandable.
Although some would insist that tying knots in handkerchiefs, avoiding walking under ladders, or touching wood for luck are a waste of time, according to Professor Hood this kind of behavior is important for our survival.
At the popular British Association “Festival of Science” in 2006, Hood claimed that superstition is a product of evolution, having evolved as a way of generating theories about the way things work when they cannot easily be seen or proved. It helps us adapt and stay safe, as well as providing a welcome sense of control. In the modern era, we know that some beliefs are really just nonsense, but the foundations of science itself were built on mankind’s ability to reason intuitively.
In an unusual experiment during a recent lecture, Hood demonstrated that ordinary people often behave in irrational ways, so scientists’ efforts to combat “irrational” beliefs ultimately may be futile. He asked members of his audience if they would try on an old blue cardigan in return for a small financial reward. After receiving many volunteers, he then stated that the cardigan used to belong to the English serial killer Fred West. At this point, most of the volunteers put their hands down.
The cardigan had not belonged to Fred West, but the experiment showed that this belief made rational people feel uncomfortable. Professor Hood commented: “It is as if evil, a moral stance defined by culture, has become physically manifest inside the clothing. Similar beliefs, which are held even among the most skeptical scientists, explain why few people would agree to swap their wedding rings for identical replicas. The difference between attaching significance to sentimental objects and believing in religion, magic or the paranormal is only one of degree.”
Hood currently is focusing on the origins of our bias toward original objects, such as artwork, sentimental possessions, and memorabilia, as opposed to identical duplicates. In particular, he is investigating children’s emotional bonds with valuable objects, such as teddy bears or comfort blankets. In a series of experiments he has found that even very young children refuse to swap their toy for an identical replacement, and they also value (what they are told are) personal possessions of important people more than they value identical copies. This means that attachment develops independently of any “perceptible properties the object possesses,” Hood said.
According to Hood, people often attach meaning to physical objects a common, if not completely logical, belief. “A minority of people are totally rational; I doubt if I could find a totally cold rationalist,” he said.
Children make up their own theories about how things work, and they are hard to shift, he said. “We are hard-wired to make sense of the world, and that includes both rational and irrational assumptions. If you’ve got a theory, it’s very difficult to modify, and no amount of counter evidence will change it. We tend to have a bias to pay attention to those instances which confirm our intuitions.”
References and Other Resources
Hood B. M. and Bloom P. Children prefer certain individuals over perfect duplicates. Cognition, Vol. 106, January 2008, pp. 455-62. Published online March 1, 2007.
The sweater experiment at the BBC