A first look at Supersense

A first look at Supersense May 13, 2009

Supersense has just been published in the UK (it’s been out in the US for a while now, for some perverse reason). Like Konrad, I’ve only skimmed it so far – but here’s some first impressions.

The book’s billed as a kind of antidote to the uber-rationalists. What the author, Bruce Hood (Professor of Psychology at the University of Bristol) does is take a wide-ranging look at the quirky psychology that underpins superstitious beliefs.

You can get the gist of what he covers in his article published by The Guardian on the weekend. The common theme throughout the book is how we just can’t help attributing mystical qualities to objects, people and places.

The first thing that struck me thumbing through it is quite how much ground it covers. The second was how much of it was new to me. I’ve read quite a few similar books, so that’s quite a pleasant surprise.

It’s also very nicely written, with a good balance between the illuminating anecdotes and the experimental evidence. It makes for easy reading, but still pretty fact-packed for all that.

The book kicks off with a look at common errors in reasoning, and then goes on to show that most people – even hardened sceptics – tend to have at least some superstitious thoughts. This leads on to the connection with religion – which depends on thoughts about the unobservable, but which are the result of culture rather than our innate biology.

How does this bridge between faulty thinking and religion occur? Hood discusses children’s beliefs and misconceptions, and how they lead directly to beliefs such as mind-body dualism. From there we progress to overactive pattern identification, and imbuing mystical properties to inanimate objects.

Then we reach the crux of the book – the idea of essentialism. This is our tendency to attribute special qualities to objects above and beyond the mere physical, and underpins a lot of the odd behaviour that Hood discusses.

And finally, Hood makes the case that these supernatural thoughts are not only unavoidable, but they are probably a good thing. They provide the social glue that hold society together. Now, it sounds like this argument is going to be particularly contentious, and as I haven’t read this chapter yet I’m going to withhold judgement… for now at least!

All in all, this is shaping up to be a fascinating and interesting book. There are some questions that I think it does not cover, which is a shame. I’d want to know what the inter-individual variability there is in ‘supersense’. Clearly, some people have more supernatural ideation than others. How does that match to social functioning?

He points out that a large part of the variation is genetic. And yet also there is a cultural and situational component. Samoan adults are more superstitious than their children. Sportsmen and women are more superstitious than average, probably because they are engaged in activities where there are hard outcomes and a hefty degree of luck.

Which suggests that we can create a less superstitious culture, even though we will probably never shake it completely. And maybe we need a little bit of the sacred to keep us sane. Who knows?

Anyway, let’s finish with Hood himself, talking about the book:

Creative Commons LicenseThis work by Tom Rees is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

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