A Review of Supersense by Bruce M. Hood

Most atheists would probably claim they’re not superstitious in any way.

They’re right when it comes to religion. But consider these situations:

  • Would you not want to live in a house in which someone once got murdered?
  • If you needed a heart transplant, would you not willingly receive the organ from a once-convicted rapist?
  • Have you ever slept next to a teddy bear?
  • Would you want to hold a pen that was once owned by Einstein?
  • Do you wear a certain article of clothing on every “big” date?

If you answered yes to any of those questions, then there’s some sort of supernatural thinking going on in your mind — something author Bruce M. Hood calls a “SuperSense.”

supersense-us-cover

Why does that sense exist in a world that prides itself on scientific progress? In his new book, Hood explains and elaborates on the answer. He is chair of the Cognitive Development Center in the Experimental Psychology Department at the University of Bristol, so he’s certainly had plenty of time and experience looking into this topic.

Among the explanations for this SuperSense is the idea of a human need for cohesion and community. Religion serves that purpose, via common rituals and places of worship, and that is one key reason why it persists.

Is it even possible to get rid of that SuperSense? Not really, argues Hood. It’s a by-product of our evolution and a better way to tackle it is to simply understand where it comes from and why it’s there. In fact, it could help us achieve a stronger sense of unity.

There are ramifications to this argument. Indeed, if even atheists can be accused of supernatural thinking, perhaps a science-based rebuttal to religion is not the way to go…

This is a fantastic and interesting book for religious and non-religious readers. It probes into our ways of thinking without necessarily offending either side, a tough feat to accomplish.

Any high-schooler can understand Hood’s arguments, and the Freakonomics-ish chapter titles (e.g. “Blooming, Buzzing Babies” and “Would You Let Your Wife Sleep with Robert Redford?”) definitely make you want to read each page. It manages to be both a quick read a thought-provoking book. I definitely enjoyed reading it.

  • Fizzy

    Sure, they’re often less expensive.

    In a heartbeat.

    Not that I recall.

    Are we talking about the pen he used to write the manuscript of Relativity with? I’m not sure how owning or wanting to own a historic artifact is superstitious.

    I’m not allowed to have a favorite shirt now?

  • http://hoverfrog.wordpress.com hoverFrog

    Would you want to live in a house in which someone once got murdered?

    Would I get a discount?

    If you needed a heart transplant, would you willingly receive the organ from a once-convicted rapist?

    Absolutely. Make some use out of them.

    Have you ever slept next to a teddy bear?

    I prefer women but any port in a storm.

    Would you want to hold a pen that was once owned by Einstein?

    Of course, it would have value for as long as others would be willing to pay for it.

    Do you wear a certain article of clothing on every “big” date?

    I always try to remember not to leave the house without any pants on.

    Doesn’t this ignore the idea that we might be aware of the irrationality of certain actions but continue to practice them anyway? For example I don’t walk under ladders. I made a point of walking under them when I first shed the ridiculous superstition that it was unlucky but then I realised that people work up ladders and they might drop something. Now I avoid walking under ladders as a general precaution. Same actions but different reason. Similarly the house where a murder was committed certainly won’t be haunted but people might target the building for random acts of vandalism or the selling price might be reduced. It may be a poor investment as a result.

    I see no reason to shed logic and reason because we humans often use intuitive responses to events. The key is to identify where out intuition is flawed and correct our actions appropriately, not to abandon intuition entirely.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    I have always wanted to buy a haunted house “for a song”. If I ever end up moving to Amityville, I know what house I would check out.

    I do, though, still have my childhood “power rock” (a piece of quartz I found as a small child). Perhaps I will ask to be buried with it so as to keep my corpse company in my grave. :)

    I think that a scientific rebuttal to religion only really works for atheists.

  • Epistaxis

    I wouldn’t want to live in a murder house, but not because I’m afraid of ghosts. I just don’t want to keep being reminded of it all the time.

  • Ron in Houston

    Thanks for the recommendation – sounds like my kind of book.

    I’ve felt for a long time that atheists arguing with folks is a waste of time. I’ve always felt that you’re arguing against fundamental human behavior.

    I think we should save our arguments and criticisms for when there is some actual harm being done.

  • Richard

    - Would you want to live in a house in which someone once got murdered?

    Yes, as long as it wasn’t going to affect sale value with other superstitious people and cause me problems selling it.

    - If you needed a heart transplant, would you willingly receive the organ from a once-convicted rapist?

    Yes of course, you’d have to be an idiot rather than superstitious to say no to that.

    - Have you ever slept next to a teddy bear?
    I expect so, when I was a kid.

    - Would you want to hold a pen that was once owned by Einstein?

    Sure! That’s a piece of memorabilia, like a baseball from a famous game or something. Nothing to do with superstition surely? I wouldn’t think it was going to give me the superpower of cleverness.

    - Do you wear a certain article of clothing on every “big” date?

    I try to be fully clothed on all my dates. But no, I don’t have “lucky” underpants or anything. I guess if a girl said I looked nice in a certain shirt, I might wear that shirt on another date with a different girl, because, you know, I’d want to look nice.

    Some of these really aren’t examples of superstition at all are they?

  • Myrdek

    The “yes” to every question makes no sense

    * Would you want to live in a house in which someone once got murdered?

    It would be superstitious to NOT want to live in that house

    * If you needed a heart transplant, would you willingly receive the organ from a once-convicted rapist?

    Once again, “no” would mean the person thinks the heart is worth less or would somehow change you into a rapist too

    * Would you want to hold a pen that was once owned by Einstein?

    What if I want to steal it and sell it on Ebay? :)

  • Peregrine

    I still avoid cracks in the sidewalk. Not cracks, per-ce, but the gaps between the concrete slabs. It’s an obsessive compulsive thing, I think.

    I’m not OCD that I know of; it’s just sort-of a quirk that I have. If I step on the seam, I “feel” it under my foot, and it makes me feel unsymmetrical, so I’m compelled to step on another seam with the other foot in exactly the same way to balance it out. So I just learned to avoid the cracks altogether.

    I’m not as bad as I used to be.

  • http://www.mutedsound.com John Perkins

    That’s kind of a lame list. And answering “yes” to the first 2 questions means that I’m not superstitious.

    Didn’t everyone sleep with a teddy bear at some point in their childhood? I believed in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy too, but that doesn’t make me superstitious, it just means that I believed the lies my parents told me. Which is a practice that should end now, as I still don’t trust my parents to tell me the truth given their willingness to lie to me for so long.

  • http://mconrsullivan.wordpress.com/ Matthew Sullivan

    you might wear a certain article of clothing simply because it best hides all the bad stuff. a better example would be not washing socks or something while on a winning streak.

  • Nick Wallin

    Yeah, like most of the other commenters, I am unconvinced that just because I would want to hold Einstein’s pen, that makes me superstitious.

    The book probably has something interesting to say, but to claim that “even atheists can be accused of supernatural thinking” requires some pretty convincing evidence/argument, and from what was mentioned in the blog post, it just isn’t there.

  • jemand

    a teddi bear? So if you want something to hug going to sleep when you’re six… you’re superstitious as an adult?

    What the heck is the teddi bear doing in that list?

    and I truly don’t understand the formulation of “yes to any statement” means you’re superstitious… the first two it’s superstitious to say no, right?

  • Todd

    Would you want to live in a house in which someone once got murdered?

    Hell yeah, especially if there are still stains. I’m creepy that way.

    If you needed a heart transplant, would you willingly receive the organ from a once-convicted rapist?

    once convicted? underachiever

    Have you ever slept next to a teddy bear?

    Up until the age of six, I think, but my grandpa wouldn’t wrap any more duct tape around it and it was thrown out (sniff)

    Would you want to hold a pen that was once owned by Einstein?

    Not sure what the supernatural significance of this is.

    Do you wear a certain article of clothing on every “big” date?

    Does clean underwear count?

  • Jeff Satterley

    I think its important to understand that it is the reason behind our actions and routines which are superstitious, not the actions themselves.

    For example, a lot of athletes, at all levels, do things that some might consider superstitious. I’m sure that some of them really believe that lacing up their shoes a certain way makes Jobu sprinkle magic dust on them so they will play better, and that is clearly superstitious. However, routines that seem to serve no purpose often help a person get into the correct mindset for a game. I had routines when I played baseball in high school, and have others now when I golf, that allow me to relax and get into the correct mindset. I would tap my cleats a certain way as I step into the batters box, not because I thought it was magic, but because it kept me from thinking about other stuff, so I could focus solely on hitting the baseball.

    This seems to apply to the examples above. For instance, I think it would be cool to see and hold a pen of Einstein’s, especially if he wrote something significant with it, but I don’t believe its going to magically improve my intellect at all. I haven’t slept with a teddy bear since I was little, but even if I did, it would probably be because it has become part of a routine that helps me relax and fall asleep, which I understand is grounded human psychology (specifically mine), and not because I think it will actually protect me.

    Some routines may start out being superstitious, but often once the realization that the justification for such actions is untenable, the routine remains because it is ingrained or comforting. And I’m not convinced that it is superstitious to stick with a routine that works, specifically when we are aware that there is nothing magical/supernatural about the consequences of these actions.

    Now I haven’t read the book, so I might be completely attacking a strawman of Hood’s, but from the examples, I think he is mistaken about what superstition really is.

  • Stan

    * Would you want to live in a house in which someone once got murdered?
    Not really, mostly because I wouldn’t want to be reminded of it or be known as “that guy who lives in the killer house”. Not because I would feel any “bad energy” or be afraid of being haunted by the ghosts of the victims.

    * If you needed a heart transplant, would you willingly receive the organ from a once-convicted rapist?
    Probably, I don’t see how his rapin’ would affect his heart directly. If it’s healthy, sure.

    * Have you ever slept next to a teddy bear?
    No, actually, but I did do a lot of other superstitious things as a kid. I don’t see how that affects me -now-.

    * Would you want to hold a pen that was once owned by Einstein?
    I would want to -own- a pen that was once owned by Einstein. That’s called an artifact, and it probably has a very high value to people interested in such things.

    * Do you wear a certain article of clothing on every “big” date?
    I’m not really active in dating right now, so I can’t answer this.

  • Q-Squared

    I’d personally LOVE to have Einstein’s pen- for the whole memorabilia aspect, not for anything else. Yes, I did sleep with a “teddy bear” when I was little (it was actually a stuffed elephant), but that was when I couldn’t hear anything (yes, I had problems with my hearing), and when I had a very acute, over the top fear of the dark.

    I tend to wear the same bracelet, not for any superstitious reason, but because it was my now-dead grand uncle’s and I like remembering him and his life (plus, it’s my favorite bracelet). I wouldn’t want to live in a house where a person was murdered because I have an intense overactive imagination, and being constantly reminded of a murder would horribly affect my already bad insomnia. Also, might as well get some use out of the heart, so I would take it.

    I might buy the book, though- as a personal read-through and a gift to some friends.

  • Twewi

    The teddy bear thing strikes me as extremely odd. I doubt anyone here will claim they were entirely rational when they were a small child, but even ignoring that, I don’t remember attaching anything “supernatural” to my stuffed animals. I’m fairly certain I was aware they were nothing more than toys, but they were soft and comforting. Material things can be comforting without being superstitious or irrational.

    The same goes for Einstein’s pen, in a way. I think I would feel a sentimental response to holding it that is not connected to any mystical force. It’s just an emotion invoked by a material object and a respect for the mind of the person who once owned it. This is, perhaps, less rational than a child with a teddy bear, but that still doesn’t assign it any supernatural aspects.

  • Efogoto

    @Peregrine: I do that some thing on sidewalks that you mentioned. I have other “evening out” tricks, but got laughed at as a kid enough that, rather than stop, I found ways of doing it unobtrusively. I’m 47 now and still have to “even out” things; like I’ll knock a hand against something and I feel off-kilter until I knock the other in approximately the same way. I know it’s odd, but until I correct it, it bothers me.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Hemant Mehta

    I feel like a lot of you are missing the point.

    If you knew someone was once murdered in a place you want to live — even if there’s no trace of that, the neighborhood is now safe, and it happened a long time ago — people do feel weird about it.

    Plenty of people sleep with stuffed animals — even after reaching a certain age and having a sense of rationality.

    The Einstein pen — yes, there’s sentimental value to it, and maybe you could sell it on ebay, but that’s not what we’re talking about. There are people out there that honestly think there’s something special about that pen. Why is that?

    I think atheists have things we’re superstitious about without realizing it. That’s what Hood believes, too, and that’s what he’s trying to explain in the book.

    By the way, I changed the wording in the initial questions in this post to read more accurately. They make more sense now.

  • Aj

    Hood was on two podcasts I listen to: Point of Inquiry and Skeptics Guide to the Universe.

    Would you not want to live in a house in which someone once got murdered?

    Is the murderer dead, or going to spend their life in prison? Because murderers have been know to come back to places. If yes, then definitely, hopefully it’ll scare the competition away.

    If you needed a heart transplant, would you not willingly receive the organ from a once-convicted rapist?

    I wouldn’t care in the slightest what the donor did.

    Have you ever slept next to a teddy bear?

    Pedobear? “Too Old; Do Not Want!”

    Would you want to hold a pen that was once owned by Einstein?

    Is it shiny?

    Do you wear a certain article of clothing on every “big” date?

    Lucky underwear? No…

  • Efogoto

    A friend of mine has commented that when looking over a cliff, his “lizard brain” starts screaming in his head. Even though he’s safe, there’s something in his head sending out a danger signal. I think that’s the “weird” you’re talking about. I don’t think it’s superstition if you react to your own danger signals – but I think it is if you won’t do something because it sets off someone else’s danger signals.

  • Justin jm

    @Peregrine: I do that some thing on sidewalks that you mentioned. I have other “evening out” tricks, but got laughed at as a kid enough that, rather than stop, I found ways of doing it unobtrusively. I’m 47 now and still have to “even out” things; like I’ll knock a hand against something and I feel off-kilter until I knock the other in approximately the same way. I know it’s odd, but until I correct it, it bothers me.

    This sounds more like shades of OCD than superstition. I have more or less the same thing.

  • AJ

    I answered the non-superstitious (no?) answer to every one except for the pen one. But then, I’ve never agreed with Hood on his stance about memorabilia. There can most certainly be 100% non-superstitious reasons to enjoy memorabilia.

  • Richard Wade

    Hemant, I understand what you and the author are getting at and it sounds like this is a valuable book. But some of the yes-or-no questions as they are presented here, not taking into consideration any reasons for a yes answer, do not necessarily indicate superstition or magical thinking.

    Remember, most of the people who visit this site are critical thinkers. They pay careful attention to the details in a question, and the details that are left out. You have to be very precise with a yes-or-no question or you’ll get “Well, that depends.” If you’ll excuse the superstitious reference, the devil’s in the details.

    Regarding the teddy bear question, I take exception to the implication that If an adult sleeps with a teddy bear, that indicates superstition or magical thinking. Most human beings need physical touch and closeness for their emotional well being their whole lives, not just during their childhood. They are healthier when they have at least some affection on a regular basis. A person who lives alone and who is lonely might sleep cuddled to a pillow or even a teddy bear because they know it will trigger a relaxation response. They don’t think there’s any magic in the object, they just know that it will have a beneficial biological effect.

    Isn’t that right, Teddy?

  • Claudia

    If you knew someone was once murdered in a place you want to live — even if there’s no trace of that, the neighborhood is now safe, and it happened a long time ago — people do feel weird about it.

    True, but its partly because you associate the event to the place and being in the place will remind you of the event.

    Plenty of people sleep with stuffed animals — even after reaching a certain age and having a sense of rationality.

    Sure, I’m one of them (as long as there isn’t a guy, naturally enough), but I don’t see this as superstition in the slightest. Hugging doesn’t only feel good to the person being hugged, but also to the person hugging. Also, when you sleep on your side it’s nice to grab unto something so your arm doesn’t hang awkwardly. My father does this with a pillow. I do not adscribe feelings or consciousness to my stuffed animals, though I may like them. A study once showed that most people touch hold and caress their phones frequently. Apparently humans like contact with a familiar object.

    The Einstein pen — yes, there’s sentimental value to it, and maybe you could sell it on ebay, but that’s not what we’re talking about. There are people out there that honestly think there’s something special about that pen. Why is that?

    That there are people out there who believe that I’m sure, but anyone who does has a supernatural belief that IS superstition. I would like to hold Einsteins pen. I was at Westminster Cathedral and (very discreetly) bent over and caressed Darwin’s tomb. I will recognize that it was irrational, he’s never been there in any real sense, but it was a very meaningful moment for me.
    Meriam-Webster defines superstition as:

    1 a : a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation b : an irrational abject attitude of mind toward the supernatural, nature, or God resulting from superstition
    2 : a notion maintained despite evidence to the contrary

    I guess my point is that in order to transcend the barrier between sentimentality or irrational emotion into superstition you have to actually think that the object has some sort of power of its own. I’m sure plenty of self-described atheists are superstitious in some sense, I just don’t think that the list you gave necessarily means superstition. I think that as long as we understand, even as we have those feelings, that they do not correspond to a reality and do not let them dominate us, we can honestly say we aren’t superstitious.

  • http://diaphanus.livejournal.com/ Ian Andreas Miller

    The “yes” to every question makes no sense

    Yes, I agree. One might as well have had “Have you ever fantasized before?” as one of the questions.

    I think its important to understand that it is the reason behind our actions and routines which are superstitious, not the actions themselves.

    I think so, too.

    I think atheists have things we’re superstitious about without realizing it. That’s what Hood believes, too, and that’s what he’s trying to explain in the book.

    It seems to me that even atheists engage in activities that have been traditionally associated with superstition. I mean, I say “Come on, come on, come on” whenever my computer takes too long to do something, and yet I don’t actually believe the computer can understand me that way.

    I’m sure plenty of self-described atheists are superstitious in some sense, I just don’t think that the list you gave necessarily means superstition.

    Yes, exactly.

    Frankly, these questions smack of something a theist would say: “Oh yeah, Mr. Rationality-Pants Atheist? You make fun of my irrationality… but… but… You would want to hold a pen that was once owned by Einstein?! You’re just as irrational! See?”

  • Pony

    To those of you who are complaining that the first two answers should be “No” for the superstitious response, I would direct your attention to the presence of a “NOT” in each one.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Hemant Mehta

    To those of you who are complaining that the first two answers should be “No” for the superstitious response, I would direct your attention to the presence of a “NOT” in each one.

    Pony — That’s my fault. I forgot to include those “Nots” initially. I added them in after I noticed the problem.

  • Rasmus

    * Would you not want to live in a house in which someone once got murdered?

    I wouldn’t mind living there unless it somehow made it harder to sell the house again.

    * If you needed a heart transplant, would you not willingly receive the organ from a once-convicted rapist?

    I’d take it and have no second thoughts about it. He hardly became a rapist because of his heart.

    * Have you ever slept next to a teddy bear?

    Yea, as a kid. In fact I still have a teddy bear. I’ve had it since I was 2 so these days it has a spot on a shelve in my bed room. It holds a certain sentimental value and is a reminder of a more innocent time in my life. I’d hardly call that superstitious.

    * Would you want to hold a pen that was once owned by Einstein?

    Sure. Not because it would do me any good or make me smarter. But for the same reason I like going to Rome and Athens and walk around in the ruins. It brings me “closer” for want of a better word.

    * Do you wear a certain article of clothing on every “big” date?

    Well, I have some shirts that a girl said looked good on me so I tend to wear them at times. Not because they are magic but hell, if they look good on me I might as well wear them.

    As has been mentioned by others there is a difference between superstition and irrational behaviour. I have plenty of silly things I do even though I know they are irrational.

    I press the call button on an elevator even though it does infact not tell the elevator that I’m in a hurry and make it come faster. I do the same at traffic lights.

    I ask my computer to hurry up or stop messing with me even though I know that it does no hurry up and it does not crash on purpose just to annoy me.

    There is a huge difference between doing silly things despite knowing better and believing a black cat crossing the road causes bad luck. In the case of the computer and elevator it’s pretty common to imbue objects with human traits I think. It probably makes it easier to relate to them. I believe a lot of things can be attributed to various coping mechanisms. We do stuff like that to build a framework to relate to the world from. It’s not superstition as far as I see it.

    Ah well, time to sleep.

    Edit: I also say stuff like ‘God only knows where my keys are.’ without it making me religious. I don’t think that go only knows but it’s a way of relating to the world. It may feel like I’m incredibly unlucky as well and I may say so even though I very well know that there is no deity or demon out to get me.

    We imbue the world with human traits. We “want” it to have a sense of purpose even if we know it doesen’t.

  • ZombieGirl

    * Do you wear a certain article of clothing on every “big” date?

    Cute underwear.
    Is that unreasonable? XD

    After realizing that I was an atheist, I stopped doing a lot of superstitious things….I don’t even cross my fingers anymore. I find myself to be more disappointed after crossing my fingers and not getting the desired outcome than if I shrug and say “whatever happens, I can’t control it.” (In situations where I really have no control… i.e. raffles, the weather, my favorite contestant losing on Top Chef…etc.)

  • Sherilyn

    I’m not superstitious at all and I don’t understand the rational behind this list.

    I lived next door to a house where I later found out the husband had set his wife on fire in the kitchen…they were both of Indian descent and I never knew the details, but it seemed like some sort of honor killing. Did I believe her ghost was running around? No. Did I like being reminded of it on occasion when I thought about the house? No. Living in a house where a murder took place would not be my first choice…not because of ghosts or superstition, but because I would always think of the sad event when I was in that spot.

    I sleep with a stuffed mnkey…or a pillow…or anything I can hold up against me and under my chin. It’s a habit thing, not a superstitious thing. I sleep with amonkey rather than a pillow because I bought one at Build a Bear with my niece many years ago.

    If I needed and organ to live, I’d take one from any legal source.

  • TheDeadEye

    Would you not want to live in a house in which someone once got murdered?

    I wouldn’t want to live in a neighborhood where someone was recently murdered, especially if it was unsolved or drug/theft related.

    If you needed a heart transplant, would you not willingly receive the organ from a once-convicted rapist?

    I don’t think they tell patients before a transplant the circumstances behind a donor organ. In any event, I could care less as long as it’s healthy and disease free.

    Have you ever slept next to a teddy bear?

    Hasn’t everyone? I sleep with a few body pillows but I hardly ever talk to them.

    Would you want to hold a pen that was once owned by Einstein?

    Not really.

    Do you wear a certain article of clothing on every “big” date?

    No, but I do have my “nicest suit” which I wear on interviews. It replaced my previous nicest suit when it was no longer my nicest suit and I’m sure it will be replaced by a newer nicer suit in the very near future.

  • Ben Finney

    There’s nothing about a murder that occurred in the house which would make me think the *house* was undesirable.

    I would not want to live in a place where a *murderer* might be more likely to return.

    I would not want to live in a *neighbourhood* where a murder was committed, but only to the extent that it was part of a trend of other violent crime in the area.

  • Jim

    Those examples above are horrible. None of us are 100% rational because we’re human and we have emotions. But there are many people who are 100% superstition-free.

  • http://blog.calumnist.com Danny

    I would probably answer yes to the Einstein question. I don’t know if I’m being superstitious but I do respect (revere?) the man. As for the other questions… Houses that had a murder in it usually have lower sale value, so I’d buy it for being cheap. A body organ is a body organ, provided the donor doesn’t have an STD. I did sleep with a teddy bear, when I was three. I don’t believe in “lucky” clothes.


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