In The Science of Superstition, cognitive psychologist Bruce Hood examines the ways in which humans understand the supernatural, revealing what makes us believe in the unbelievable.
*Previously published as SuperSense.
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As it is, we both found the ideas fascinating, but somewhat lacking in rigour. For example, we both did the questionnaire at the end intended to measure one's level of 'supersense', and both came out with zero. This is not because we lack superstitions (she has a pair of Miffy socks which she wears for all exams; I ask my close friends to 'think good thoughts for me' in times of stress; neither of us can sleep without our teddy bears...) but because the questions were badly phrased. "Things sometimes seem to be in different places when I get home, even though no one has been there", for example. If you answer 'true', this counts as a point toward 'supersense' -- even if, like me and my sister, you actually have that feeling but know, without a doubt, that you just forgot where you put something down (or that someone else sharing the household came in unexpectedly). I don't think we have 'supersense', as defined by Bruce Hood, in that case: there's nothing mystical, to our minds, about how the situation came about.
So, interesting, but at times badly defined. Despite me and my sister's determination to break every question in the test, I think we all have superstitious beliefs, and that Hood is right that to some extent that behaviour is hard-wired into us. To his credit, he does ask after the set of questions whether it does actually measure 'supersense'.
It's particularly intriguing to read this as someone who suffers from anxiety, actually. I'm very used to questioning my own view of reality: if I have a generalised feeling of anxiety, I could choose to be afraid that I'm predicting a terrible event, or that there's a malevolent spirit in the room with me. However, I know I'm not and there isn't: somewhere something bad is happening, and no doubt someone is ill-wishing me, but I am certain I don't know about it through mystical means -- I'm just guessing. I once told my brother that something bad was going to happen because everyone we knew felt crappy; when I woke up the next morning, terrorist attacks had taken place in London. I believed I predicted that, but the logically trained part of me knows that it was a coincidence. I connected my prediction with the event because such an amazing event couldn't be a coincidence, but now I think about it and I'm sure that many other nights all our friends felt bad, and nothing bad happened the next day. I just didn't notice, because nothing important happened.
I can rationalise everything away if you let me at it for long enough, just as above, and in fact that's exactly what my doctor wants me to do, but at the same time I'm religious. I pray, and believe that it helps in some way -- not just that it makes me feel better, but that it has tangible results. How can you rationalise away all the bad/creepy stuff, and still believe in the positive stuff?
So yeah, this book is good to read if you're interested in questioning your own thoughts/beliefs and so on, and interestingly, it also ascribes a positive role in society to superstition and the like.more