Supernatural beliefs

Psychological Essentialism

Bruce, Daniel Dennett and Richard Gregory

Main researchers: Prof. Bruce M. Hood, Dr. Nathalia Gjersoe

Collaborators: Prof. Paul Bloom (Yale University), Prof Susan Gelman (Michigan), Prof Shoji Itakura (Kyoto)

In a new line of work, we have been examining how children’s normal intuitive theories underpin adults’ magical beliefs – the notion that there are patterns, forces and essences operating in the world that are categorically unsupported by rational scientific models. For example, essentialism is the controversial notion that humans infer an unobservable property or essence that defines the category membership of an individual to a group. To date most work has focused on essentialism in the domain of biology, as this field is rich with taxonomic boundaries of varying degrees of clarity.

The Copy Box machine

Recently, researchers have come to regard essentialism as a more general principle for inferring characteristic invisible properties of artifacts. It partly explains why we value authentic and original items more than identical duplicates such as art treasures or sentimental objects. We recently demonstrated that children with attachment objects such as blankets or stuffed toys will not easily accept an identical copy.

You can follow this line of work at Bruce’s site about his forthcoming book, "SuperSense: Why We Believe the Unbelievable."

This research is being funded by the Leverhulme Trust and the Esmeé Fairbairn Foundation.

Moral contamination of objects

Main researchers: Prof. Bruce M. Hood

Collaborators: Arno Van Voorst, Katy Donnelly, Nathalia Gjersoe

One of our main interests is peoples’ beliefs (both implicit and explicit) that objects can be contaminated with the 'essence' of their owner (think of our eagerness to touch and possess an object owned by a celebrity, or our unwillingness to touch an object owned by a despised individual). Arno Van Voorst, a graduate student at the BCDC, is pursuing this and how these beliefs consciously and unconsciously influence behaviour. At the moment, we are currently running various studies with adults to see how people respond to both 'contaminated' objects and even 'contaminated' people. We plan to conduct further studies with both adults and children to study how the idea of contamination might develop over the course of the lifespan.

Continuing on the theme of magical thinking, graduate student Katy Donnelly has been looking at the effects of cutting up pictures of objects of sentimental attachment in a series of studies measuring galvanic skin responses. In particular, we have found evidence suggesting that people experience mild distress or alarm at cutting up photographs of their childhood items, whereas cutting up photographs of wedding rings does not elicit a similar effect. An interesting comparison can be drawn between this effect and beliefs in 'voodoo' magic - where destruction of a replica of an object is believed to bring harm to the original.

Mind Body Dualism

Main researchers: Prof. Bruce M. Hood

Collaborators: Dr. Nathalia Gjersoe

There is a wide-ranging intuition among adults that the mind and body of living creatures is somehow separate. As an example, when asked what is likely to be copied if a person were cloned, many adults agree that the clone would be physically identical to the original but would be unlikely to have all of the same memories, desires or preferences. We are currently exploring how this mind-body dualism develops throughout early childhood.

We are currently exploring how this mind-body dualism develops throughout early childhood. Recent studies with young children show that mind-body dualism is very early developing. When presented with a scenario in which a living hamster is apparently duplicated, children from 5 years of age state that the original's physical but not mental states will be copied over. Preliminary work suggests this dualism applies primarily to episodic memories and not mental states that can be shared such as desires and preferences. Ongoing studies are exploring the extent to which this mind-body dualism in young children is exacerbated by intuitions about the uniqueness of the individual identities (known as "haeccity").

Attribution of mental states to unique objects

Main researchers: Dr. Nathalia Gjersoe, Prof. Bruce Hood

Traditionally it has been thought that young children treat all things as though they were animate - alive with thoughts and feelings - and only later learn to distinguish living from non-living things. In a series of studies we have shown that 3- and 4-year-old children group together all toys with faces, with other similar stuffed toys and easily recognise that they do not have thoughts or feelings like animals. Interestingly, the only inanimate objects that these young children did attribute thoughts and feelins to were their attachment objects - sentimental toys used for comfort and often treated as having special, unique properties.

Neural correlates of sympathetic magical belief

Main researchers: Prof. Bruce Hood, Dr. Nathalia Gjersoe

Collaborators: Dr. Richard Wise, Dr. John Evans (Cardiff University Brain Resesearch Imaging Centre)

Sympathetic magical thought is a bias to think that action on something that looks like an object will affect the object itself. This manner of thinking underlies a variety of ritual practices that are prevalent in society such as voodoo and many herbal remedies.

Previous work conducted in our lab shows that educated adults who claim not to think in sympathetic magical ways will none-the-less show increased galvanic skin response arousal when cutting up a photo of their favourite objects relative to other familiar and control objects.

A recent grant from the Bial Foundation has been awarded to explore the neural underpinnings of this bias. Adults with attachment objects (sentimental childhood toys) will be scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) techniques to determine which parts of their brain are activated when they see images of their attachment objects in a variety of scenarios realtive to control objects.

We are currently recruiting adults who still have their childhood attachment objects to take part in this study. If you are interested, please contact Dr. Nathalia Gjersoe on (0117) 9546619 or N.L.Gjersoe@bristol.ac.uk.