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Would You Wear a Serial Killer's Sweater?

On jellyfish genes, autism, politics, and how our intuitions lead us into strange territory.

So, would you wear a serial killer's sweater? No blood spatters or anything. Heck, let's even say it has been dry cleaned.

Psychologist and cognitive neuroscientist Bruce Hood has been known to brandish a cardigan belonging to the serial killer Fred West in the lecture hall. West tortured, raped, and murdered at least 12 women. Of course, a moment's reflection will reveal that his sartorial choices probably had nothing to do with his grisly hobby. And there's no possibility of catching serial killer disease from his sweater, right? Nonetheless, most people will refuse to wear the sweater once they know its provenance (false provenance, actually, the sweater Hood uses is not really West's). Odder still, in large lecture halls, members of the audience will physically recoil from the few people who say they are willing to wear the sweater. The crowds, which often consist of highly-educated, secular people, laugh nervously as this little drama is played out, says Hood, because they realize that there is something odd and illogical about their reaction.

Hood has made a study of these intuitive ways of seeing the world. In his new book Supersense: Why We Believe in the Unbelievable (HarperOne), he looks at the moments where our intuitions come into conflict with our rational faculty. We're born with a proclivity to see patterns that aren't there, to sense agency where there is only randomness, and to tell stories about cause and effect that may or may not be true. Hood examines religion through this lens, but most of the book focuses on the ways that even people who don't consider themselves religious—or even superstitious—are governed by intuition.

Associate Editor Katherine Mangu-Ward spoke with Hood earlier this week, via Skype.

Reason: So, why do most people get creeped out by the serial killer's cardigan?

Bruce M. Hood
: If you talk to people about this in a very analytical way, or you describe it to them, people say "Oh, of course I wouldn't find a problem with that," because they can sit and reason about it. But if you suddenly present them with the real cardigan and don't tell them the context and get them to respond immediately, that's the beauty of the situation, because you get the intuitions automatically being triggered. This is my point: We can reflect on our decisions and we can reflect upon our so-called beliefs. And we can come up with justifications or reasons for the decisions we take. But if you're actually put in a dramatic situation, you will flinch. You will respond in a different way. And that's because there are different speeds at which you make decisions. Some can be very fast and intuitive, and other ones you can reflect upon.

Reason: What is supersense?

Hood: Many people, they don't often recognize they have supernatural beliefs in many of their decision processes and behaviors. For believers, there's a hidden dimension to reality. There are passions out there, there are energies operating in the world controlled by invisible forces. Believers recognize this as the basis for a lot of their supernatural beliefs about the world. But even atheists and non-believers still operate with behaviors which reflect this assumption that there is something invisible operating. So that's what I've done in the book is address what this is and where it comes from.

Reason: You frequently describe these intuitions as being something we "revert" to. Is our supersense inborn?

Hood: The intuitive system is one which is not taught. It's one that's wired into the brain as part of our natural reasoning. We're designed to seek out patterns in the world. We will detect co-occurrences. In doing so, we try to understand what caused them to happen. We can't stop ourselves [from] doing it. You've got two ways of making judgments. You've got one that is very rapid, unconscious, and untutored—the intuitive system. And the second rational experiential system, the one which is analytical, is much slower and laborious. What I think is going on is that when you have a situation where the intuitive system is running riot, you have to suppress it, as it were.

To give you an example outside the context of supernatural belief: Most people, if you ask them about two cannon balls, one weighs 100 times the weight of another and you drop them from the same height, what happens? And most people say, "Oh, the heavy one falls faster and hits the ground." Now, that's not correct, that's a naive misconception about weight and speed, Galileo taught us that centuries ago. But then you can educate people with Newtonian physics and you can tell them about Newton's third law of motion. And on that level they'll be able to tell you that they should land at the same time.

The point is that when you teach people the rational propositional way of understanding that particular problem, they may understand it initially, but when they go away they very quickly forget it again. They revert back to the intuitions. And even when you're teaching people to learn the new law, to understand the scientific law, we know from brain studies that they're actively suppressing parts of their fast, rapid reasoning system in order to acquire what is an unlikely or counter-intuitive assumption. When you get counter-intuitive propositions, you have to inhibit this intuitive way of thinking. If we turn to supernatural beliefs, because I'm suggesting that these are premised on a lot of intuitions, then we may learn more rational models, or more scientific models of the world. But the intuitive models of thinking never entirely go away, and that's why you get people when you're compromising their ability to use their analytical system they can often revert or go back to their intuitions.

Reason: How does our desire to see agency in the world play out in politics?

Hood: The one thing the human brain is not very good at is dealing with random events. We're always seeing structure where there may not be any structure. And we don't like the idea of there being no predictable outcome. That creates a sense of stress or a sense of uncertainty. One way of dealing with uncertainty is to engage in acts or beliefs which you think give you some perception of control. That's why we have superstitious rituals, doing something we believe might have some influence on the outcome, and that then becomes self-reinforcing.

If we're not doing the controlling ritual, then we're very happy to concede or hand over to those individuals who we perceive, or other people perceive, or the group perceives, as actually being someone who can control the outcome. So that's where the emergence of the priests and the captains of industry and the idea that there is a consensus these people have control. Very often that kind of a group consensus is sufficient in itself. There doesn't have to be a lot of objective evidence to prove this person's control. He doesn't have to prove himself each time. So it's very hard to be critical of these individuals who have established themselves, by consensus, as being the people who can do things.

Reason: One example that you give in the book is the case of a child who needs medical attention that will cost $1 million, which the hospital will have to cover. You describe this phenomenon where most people not only have the instant intuition that the child should be saved no matter what, but they are actually disgusted by anyone who tries to do a cost-benefit analysis on the question, even if that person comes to the "right" conclusion in the end.

Hood: It was Philip Tetlock, who is an economic psychologist, who first pointed that out. The fact that you might deliberate over it, the fact that you might even have to apply some kind of cost benefit analysis is in itself abhorrent. Because it's a violation of what should be an instantaneous assumption, something that the group should automatically feel. Leon Kass called that the gut reaction, the politics of decision making, that you should just feel the answer to be correct. These are all driven by intuitions. The moral disgust that we feel is again something that you shouldn't have to think about. But that's really quite arbitrary, because in many ways—I think the hospital administrator example is perfect for that—in terms of what's best for the group, it's clear that these are tough decisions. In fact, it's clearly a decision that people do agonize about. But if you put them into the open domain they'd be very reluctant to say that or to admit that publicly. But that's in fact exactly what does have to go when you're in a position to hold the purse strings.

Reason: How does this play out in health care policy?

Hood: I would suspect that there are decisions made behind closed doors that are generally not discussed in the open domain because they would evoke so many problems. Genetic modification being one of those. We can quite easily talk about inserting various genes, but when people learn they come from jellyfish, for example, then an intuition kicks in that there's some violation of God's law or there's some sort of Frankensteinian type of science going on. You almost have to cover it up with an anonymity of jargon. I think the people who are making the decisions are always quite aware that there's always a sensitive set of issues, which are sensitive because they violate the sacred values.

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  • ||

    I don't see a refusal to wear the sweater of a serial killer as "superstition," but rather only a desire not to be associated in any way with that person.

  • ||

    Katherine Mangu-Ward spoke with Hood earlier this week, via Skype.

    The world has clearly moved on.

    Thankee sai.

  • ||

    After reading this article, all I can say is "Wow, we are all really screwed." Not only do people often not think rationally when emotions get in the way, but, even more ominously, people hate others that are willing to think rationally when most aren't.

    Say it with me now: transhumanism

  • ||

    One way of dealing with uncertainty is to engage in acts or beliefs which you think give you some perception of control. That's why we have superstitious rituals, doing something we believe might have some influence on the outcome, and that then becomes self-reinforcing.



    Like voting!

  • dhex||

    Say it with me now: transhumanism

    but does it get more irrational than the nerd gnostics and the singularity routine? "oh to leave this tired body behind..."

  • ||

    We can quite easily talk about inserting various genes, but when people learn they come from jellyfish, for example, then an intuition kicks in that there's some violation of God's law or there's some sort of Frankensteinian type of science going on.

    And some of us just think it's cool. The jellyfish genes are ones they use to make cats, mice and monkeys glow in the dark.

  • ||

    Brian Caplan said in his book that voters intuitively distrust market systems. We're hardwired for small tribal communal groups, and making a profit off of someone else is wrong. It's okay to make a living, but you shouldn't make more than anyone else... unless you're the chief or shaman.

    The market as an emergent system arising out of the the interaction of individuals is an unintuitive concept. Hell, idea of a positive sum game is unintuitive. Most people just can't grasp that someone can make money without first taking it from another.

  • ||

    After thinking it over rationally, my wife and I decided to go ahead and use the bedroom where her mother died and sleep in that bed.

    Now every so often we suspect that we too may die, eventually.

  • ||

    Strange. A Katherine Mangu-Ward post involving serial killers and jelly fish and not one mention of eating stuff.

  • Brian Sorgatz||

    After reading this article, all I can say is "Wow, we are all really screwed."

    Cheer up, Mike. If we were screwed, we wouldn't have had the economic and moral progress of the last few centuries.

  • ||

    The world has clearly moved on.

    Thankee sai.


    Can we paint her hands red?

  • ||

    Strange. A Katherine Mangu-Ward post involving serial killers and jelly fish and not one mention of eating stuff.

    I ate his jellyfish with some fava beans and a nice Chianti. There, happy now?

  • ||

    Like voting!

    Super awesome ninja win for HoneyBunny.

  • ||

    It's perfectly rational not to want to wear a serial killer's sweater. While wearing it you would be reminded of the subject of serial killing; you would associate your unpleasant thoughts and feelings with the tactile feel of the sweater; and you would feel uncomfortable.

    It's perfectly understandable, rational, and reasonable human nature not to wear such a sweater.

  • ||

    About the sweater, an interesting experiment would be to offer randomized groups $10 to put on a "serial killer's" sweater for 15 minutes. Offer another group the same deal with a normal sweater.

    If the groups differ, then we can assume there is an irrational fear of evil clinging to sweaters.

  • ||

    I've had a very sick kitten recently (OK, probably could have put that better, given this audience, but...). I decided to bring in a stray cat and her kittens and then wound up paying some ungodly amount of money to give one of them a blood transfusion- like $1200.00. I'm a fucking idiot.. anyway, I left a small plastic container of "prescription food" (don't get me started on what a scam that is) on the counter with some water and a bit of cat food in it, plus a couple of pieces of silverware. In between dealing with almost dead kitties and trying to scrub kitten shit out of my carpet every 15 minutes I forgot about it until it began to smell really bad. When I touched the silverware I noticed that the water kept churning longer than it should have. Mainly because some sort of pupal insect had taken hold in the aqueous environment.

    Now, I'm not squeamish, really. I mean, I've put on hip waders and surfed around in big tanks of rotten meat destined for- well, coincidentally, probably pet food. Worse than that, I've worked in a fair number of restaurants. But you know what? I threw the silverware away. A fork and a spoon.

    I was out of bleach and it was about 2 bucks worth of silverware, and I didn't want to be eating some nice meal in 3 months and suddenly think "Hey, is this _that_ spoon?" Now if it were the family silver, I wouldn't have done that. But my family silver is available for sale (by someone else) online for about 35k, and I haven't had the balls to buy it back yet so...

    Is that rational, or not? I mean- I know I could sterilize it (a lot more easily than I can sterilize my entire kitchen), and I know that there's microbes everywhere... but I don't want to have to _think_ about it while eating.

  • ||

    I should add that I would be pretty psyched to have a serial killer's seater. I would wear it every time I drank absinthe from the skull of a virgin who committed suicide after I ruined her for marriage.

  • ||

    "Cheer up, Mike. If we were screwed, we wouldn't have had the economic and moral progress of the last few centuries."

    That and a beer just made me feel better.

  • ||

    I should add that I would be pretty psyched to have a serial killer's seater. I would wear it every time I drank absinthe from the skull of a virgin who committed suicide after I ruined her for marriage.


    One of the most superior sentences I've seen in a while--content-wise, of course.

    Incidentally, I had an absinthe-lined drink last night. Delicious.

    Also, it is irrational to not want to wear a serial killer's sweater, as well as not wanting to eat off the maggot-tainted fork and knife.

  • ||

    "content-wise, of course."

    Thanks. And, yeah, well- spelling-wise I guess it wasn't so hot. But you know what? Fuck this bourgeois concern with spelling. Fucking Frenchmen forced "orthography" on us stout English yo-men anyway.

    "Also, it is irrational to not want to wear a serial killer's sweater, as well as not wanting to eat off the maggot-tainted fork and knife."

    See, I'm not sure this is really true, unless you use a very narrow definition of "rational." I have certain prejudices that amount to something like revulsion. Now, if I had to go live in the Amazon and eat grubs cut out of logs it would be irrational for me to resist that because the cost of resisting would be higher than the cost of the emotional distress involved in discarding my prejudices.

    But I think I was wise to toss my silverware, if I take my existing prejudices into account. I mean- it was just a fork and a spoon, man ;).

    Anyway, I just paid $1200.00 to give a kitten a blood transfusion and then came home and ate some lamb so... I clearly think that my prejudices ought to be taken into consideration when I think about what is rational and what is not.

  • ||

    It should be noted that women tend to have an overpowering urge to be impregnated by me. It's just a function of their biology. But it should also be noted that I have an overpowering urge to wear a condom.

    People... almost as good as monkeys, but not quite.

  • ||

    how is the kitten ever going to be able to pay you back? kittens are a terrible credit risk.

  • ||

    "It should be noted that women tend to have an overpowering urge to be impregnated by me. It's just a function of their biology. But it should also be noted that I have an overpowering urge to wear a condom.

    People... almost as good as monkeys, but not quite."

    You are truly a poet.

  • ||

    Brandybuck articulates a thought I've often had - that the beneficence of capitalism is counterintuitive. I hadn't linked it, though, to the notion of an emergent property, and the additional counterintuitivity therein. Nice.

  • ||

    Out of curiosity, where does one get the blood to give a kitten a transfusion? Do cats have blood types ? Do different varieties of cats have different blood types.? Probably one of those questions I never have needed to ask before and never will again.

  • ||

    Hood said that Obama seems more cautious, more reasoned. The important word here is "seems".

  • ||

    old timer - cats have blood types just like we do (no O though) - and you can freeze feline blood or take it from another like typed cat.

  • ||

    Thanks for the info, after all my curiosity then didn't kill a cat and I'm happy.

  • ||

    fishfry:
    "It's perfectly rational not to want to wear a serial killer's sweater. While wearing it you would be reminded of the subject of serial killing; you would associate your unpleasant thoughts and feelings with the tactile feel of the sweater; and you would feel uncomfortable.

    It's perfectly understandable, rational, and reasonable human nature not to wear such a sweater."

    While that may be accurate (for some) it assumes that it even IS a "Serial Killers Sweater".

    ----------------------------------------
    My first thought was Bullshit! No way a serial killers clothing was released from evidence to a college professor!

    Anyone who'd actually believe the claim perhaps has the larger issue?

  • ||

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    Release Date: June 16, 2009

  • ||

    how is the kitten ever going to be able to pay you back? kittens are a terrible credit risk.



    Woman have an instinctual urge to nurture, to prepare them for child raising. It is instinctual, so all it takes is some big eyed cuddly creature to fulfill that urge. It doesn't matter if a cat is not really like a baby, the cat is enough to stimulate that lizard part of the brain to release endorphins. Pets are to having babies what masturbation is to making babies.

    The money she saved by having a litter of cats instead of human babies pays for that cat blood transfusion 1000 times over. The cat pays its debt in the form of labor as a surrogate child.

  • Scarpe Nike Italia||

    is good

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