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Last Updated: Monday, 4 September 2006, 17:55 GMT 18:55 UK
Woolly ruse incites irrationality
By Elli Leadbeater
Norwich

Professor Hood and "Fred West's cardigan" (Image: BBC)
Even cardigans can reveal people's superstitious beliefs
The cardigan has been thoroughly cleaned and bears no trace of its original owner, Professor Bruce Hood tells his audience as he invites them to put it on.

But most people quickly reverse their decision to wear the garment when he explains that its owner was the infamous serial killer Fred West.

The association with evil is enough to cause disgust - even though the cardigan itself is innocuous and is not really linked to the Gloucester murderer at all.

People's reactions in this small test illustrate, Professor Hood says, that even the apparently very rational among us give more credibility to superstitious intuition than they realise.

"Most people will wear it if I offer them 10, and then when I tell them it's Fred West's jumper most hands go down," says the professor of psychology at Bristol University.

"Of the few hands that stay up and put it on, most people move away from them. It's a powerful emotive effect."

The scientist was using the demonstration here at the British Association's Science Festival to explain his work looking at the origin of mystical beliefs.

Objects with personality

Humans will often attribute emotions or sentimentality to objects that they know are inanimate, such as wedding rings and other treasured possessions, Professor Hood says.

"We often think that objects have some degree of provenance which goes with them physically. A minority of people are totally rational; I doubt if I could find a totally cold rationalist."

He also allows his audience to pass around a fountain pen, which he tells them belonged to Albert Einstein. When he reveals that this is not really true either, the audience's disappointment is evident, and the pen is treated with much less reverence.

Hood's experiments have focused on the importance that young children put on "attachment objects" - teddy bears and comfort blankets.

His researchers convince the pre-school-age subjects that their special item will be put into a machine that can produce a copy of the object which is identical in every way.

But the infants, who are offered the choice of having the original or the "perfect" copy returned to them, strongly prefer the original.

Innately superstitious

Hood believes that the way in which humans learn about the world around them leads them to be predisposed to these superstitions.

Children have intuitive theories about how things work. One of these theories is that objects have an essence, or soul.

"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."

This means that children's intuitive theories are not fully disproved, and become lodged in their minds. As a result, they continue to half-believe that objects have emotions and human attributes.

"We are hard-wired to make sense of the world, and that includes both rational and irrational assumptions."

This hard-wiring, which leads us to find an explanation for everything, may explain why superstitious beliefs and even religions develop.

"I don't think it's a case that our belief in the supernatural is given to us by religions. We intuitively think that these [supernatural] things are real, and religions just give us the context," he says.




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