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Mr. Armstrong’s Jersey and Mr. Rogers’s Sweater

June 12, 2009

A review of SuperSense: From Superstition to Religion—the Brain Science of Belief by Bruce M. Hood. This review was published in the Science magazine on June 12, 2009.

During a recent trip to Austin, Texas, for a debate with Old Earth creationists, I paid a visit to Lance Armstrong’s famous bike shop Mellow Johnny’s (so named because Americans butcher the pronunciation of maille jaune, French for yellow jersey). In addition to numerous yellow jerseys hanging on the walls, on the showroom floor were several of the bikes that Armstrong rode while winning seven Tours de France. “People think these are replica bikes,” the shop manager told me. “When I explain that these are the actual bikes on which Lance won the tour, they touch them like holy relics.”

Why people imbue physical artifacts with an almost mystical force that can transmit its power to the contactee is the subject of Bruce M. Hood’s marvelous new book, SuperSense: Why We Believe in the Unbelievable. In an account chock full of real-world examples reinforced by experimental research, Hood (a cognitive psychologist at the University of Bristol) builds a theoretical model to explain how the mind comes to sense that there is something beyond the natural world, something supernatural. He calls this phenomenon our “supersense.” Our supersense underlies our tendency to believe that objects, animals, and people contain an essence (something at the core of their being that makes them what they are) and that this essence may be transmitted from objects to people and from people to people. There may be evolutionary reasons for this tendency, rooted in fears about diseases and contagions that contain all-too-natural essences that can be deadly (and hence should be avoided). But we now generalize the supersense to any and all objects, seen and unseen, and assume that those seen and unseen objects have agency and intention.

The supersense is not restricted to the uneducated or unintelligent. “Many highly educated and intelligent individuals experience a powerful sense that there are patterns, forces, energies, and entities operating in the world that are denied by science because they go beyond the boundaries of natural phenomena we currently understand,” Hood notes. “More importantly, such experiences are not substantiated by a body of reliable evidence, which is why they are supernatural and unscientific. The inclination or sense that they may be real is our supersense.”

In other words, even smart people believe weird things. Why? I have argued that it is because we all have to believe things—whether they are weird things or nonweird things1. The process by which we come to believe things is called learning. We connect A to B to C, and often A really is connected to B, and B really is connected to C. But we do not have a falsepattern- detection device in our brains to help us discriminate between valid and misleading patterns, and so we make errors in our thinking: type I errors in believing patterns are real when they are not (false positives) and type II errors in not believing patterns are real when they are (false negatives). Imagine that you are a hominid on the plains of Africa and you hear a rustle in the grass. Is that the sound of a dangerous predator or just the wind? If you assume it is a dangerous predator and it is just the wind, you have made a type I error, but to no harm. But if you believe the rustle in the grass is just the wind when it is actually a dangerous predator, there is a good chance you’ll be removed from your species’ gene pool. Thus, I argued, there would have been natural selection for those hominids who tended to believe that all patterns are real and potentially dangerous. I called the resulting processes patternicity (the tendency to find meaningful patterns in random noise) and agenticity (the tendency to believe that the world is controlled by invisible intentional agents who may mean us harm)2, 3.

Hood’s supersense is a superstructure that incorporates both of these processes. It is the basis of superstition and magical thinking. “If essences are thought to be transferable, we will not consider ourselves isolated individuals but rather members of a tribe potentially joined to each other through beliefs in supernatural connectedness,” Hood explains. “We will see others in terms of the properties that make them essentially different from us. Such an idea suggests that some essential qualities are more likely to be transmitted than others.” He includes among these qualities “youth, energy, beauty, temperament, strength, and even sexual preference.” Many transplant patients suspect that certain aspects of the personality of the donor will be incorporated into their own essence. Along with hoping that some object will convey the force of good, we fear the transmission of evil. Studies discussed by Hood show, for example, that most people say that they would never wear the sweater of a murderer. The possibility fills them with disgust, probably an evolved emotion selected to avoid rotting food and disease-carrying substances. They would, however, happily wear the cardigan sweater of the children’s television host Mr. Rogers, which they believe makes them better persons.

The supersense is so powerful, in fact, that it can influence even the most rational of skeptics. At Mellow Johnny’s, I purchased an array of Lance Armstrong cycling gear (I ride bikes regularly). During my debate with the creationists that night, I was secretly wearing a pair of Lance Armstrong yellow-rimmed black socks and a “Livestrong” T-shirt underneath my suit. My rational brain does not for a moment believe that the essence of Armstrong’s celebrated strength and endurance powered me through the three-hour event. Yet, for some odd reason I felt more confident, and perhaps—given the influence of belief and the power of placebo—I was a better debater that night. I don’t know. But Hood knows that the supersense is all pervasive. For that reason, his book is an important contribution to the psychological literature that is revealing the actuality of our very irrational human nature.


  1. M. Shermer, Why People Believe Weird Things (Henry Holt, New York, 1997).
  2. M. Shermer, Sci. Am. 299 (6), 46 (2008).
  3. M. Shermer, Sci. Am. 300 (6), 36 (2009).
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