Thursday, January 7, 2010

Believing the unbelieveable

Have a listen to this excellent interview of neuroscientist Bruce Hood. I can't think of a single thing I disagreed with this guy on. I may have more specific to say later, and perhaps I will buy his book.


  1. I certainly find this interesting. I believe everyone has the capability of being superstitious and I believe that embracing one's own superstitions (if they exist) can help one move forward. However, I think it's possible to move beyond superstition by more thoroughly understanding the nature behind superstition. I think one can use human cognitive to debunk any superstitious behavior in oneself.

    As per usual, I have some questions... I may misunderstand what Bruce Hood is saying, so please feel free to correct me.

    When explaining his Jeffrey Dahmer's example, Bruce Hood describes that he asked people if they would try on a raincoat for $50. Everyone put their hands up. He then said it belonged to Jeffrey Dahmers. Most people put their hands down. Some people still had their hands raised. He explains that everyone essentially glared at the people with their hands raised because wearing a murderer's jacket is taboo. However, he fails to explain why some people still had their hands up. Are they superstitious?

    I buy the vast majority of my clothes from thrift stores because it is much less expensive than buying new clothes. As long as the clothes are clean and in good shape, I purchase them. If I had the history of the clothing, I don't think my purchases would be affected.

    I really like the woman (Holly, 18:05 min) who called in. I was actually starting to type up a similar response to this post before I heard her call in. Taking Holly's explanation of superstition verses representation, I will provide another example. Instead of asking someone, "would you want to wear Jeffrey Dahmer’s raincoat?" what if you asked "would you want to wear a swastika?" Though the symbol originally represented the Indian symbol for peace, people now associate it with the Nazi regime. Some people may not want to wear it because of superstitions and the essence of Nazi evil, but most people won't wear it because of its association with Nazis. Bruce Hood twists words and definitions to fit his argument. The essence of something and what something represents are two very different words that should not be interchanged. In fact, one of the largest differences between Catholicism and Lutherans (of course, apart from the pope) is that Catholics believe the Eucharist is the essence of Jesus, whereas Lutherans believe the Eucharist represents Jesus.

    Free will was SUCH a good question. The answer was definitely interesting, but I don't know if I agree with it or not.

    With all that said, I've now written two pages in response to your 3 sentence post, but I can't bring myself to finish my paper on Mongolian culture. Of course, if you told me I was being graded on comments to your blog and Prof Dietrich told me I was no longer being graded on Mongolians, my interest in Mongolian culture would suddenly spark.

  2. "However, he fails to explain why some people still had their hands up. Are they superstitious? "

    He doesn't mention it in the interview (perhaps in the book), but I would answer it in the following way. The people who keep their hands up either are not superstitious (it doesn't matter to them) or they are, but they either enjoy the confrontational nature of "tempting fate", perhaps, or perhaps they just ignore their fear. You can't really say much about the people who's hands stay up from this measurement, but there might be other measurements that tease that out.

    " Some people may not want to wear it because of superstitions and the essence of Nazi evil, but most people won't wear it because of its association with Nazis."

    I don't think this is a good comparison. The swastika is a symbol, like letters of the alphabet, and (currently) pretty much means the same thing to all people. Thus, by wearing it, you *know* what other people think and don't want that stigma. Jeffrey Dahmer's raincoat is different, because it is just a raincoat: no one else would know. The only one who would know is the person wearing it.

    Bruce Hood uses the term psychological essentialism here, to refer to the perception of something beyond the physical attached to objects. One more example that he uses is wedding rings, which I think is a better example than a swastika, but points out a weakness in his analysis. Another explanation for our attachment to a wedding ring, rather than the superstitious belief that there is something beyond the physical material in the ring, is memory: we have made an association between this particular ring and good memories. Thus, we will act as if this ring has more than the material because, in a way, it does (except the other part is in our heads). The same might be true of Jeffery Dahmer's raincoat: it reminds us of when we heard or read of Jeffery Dahmer, and we'd rather not have something that does that just as we might not want to read a biography of him. It doesn't necessarily imply that we think there is more in the raincoat than the physical material, any more than it implies that we think there is more in the biography than the words. The rest is in our memory, associating the two objects.

    Some of the experiments may have controlled for this interpretation, so we would have to look at the data.