I’m extremely pleased and excited that Bruce Hood has agreed to write an article for Skepchick, because his book Supersense is my current number one must-read for skeptics. The reason for that is simple: it has much-needed insight into our sense of the supernatural and a position that skeptics don’t always acknowledge – that ‘woo’ thinking is innate. If you want a taster of Bruce’s research and a great overview of the book, check out the recent Little Atoms interview here. Bruce’s Skepchick article “Who Put the Woo in Woomen?” is after the jump.
Who Put the Woo in Woomen?
Professor Bruce Hood
I just discovered the skeptical community when I recently embarked on promotion for my book. I confess that this community had been much of a mystery to me, as I had not been paying attention to the growing body of non-scientists interested in critical thinking. What surprised me the most was how many enthusiastic young females played a prominent role in this movement. I guess I harboured the stereotype of the opposite profile, namely curmudgeonly old males. It is not too surprising when you take a look at the various atheist sites where lurks a particular breed of angry male, who seems to thrive on logic sandwiches of sarcastic and semantic nit-picking washed down with a cheeky bottle of vitriol.
I was also introduced to the term, â€œzombie crush,â€ where someone is admired more for their brains than their body. As a scientist for over 20 years, this is a refreshingly alien concept to me. So this growing community of female skeptics is great news for the scientific community where females are still under-represented (I should point out that in my field of experimental psychology, the undergraduate class is predominantly (>80%) female but the teaching staff is predominantly male).
But female skeptics are the minority among women in general. When I gave a talk at Skeptics in the Pub in London about why we believe in the supernatural, a young lady asked me, â€œWhy do so many women believe in woo?â€ Itâ€™s true. Itâ€™s not a stereotype. Studies of various measures of paranormal and supernatural beliefs consistently find that women as a groupÂ score higher than males. Thatâ€™s a fact. Are they more gullible? Are they less critical in their thinking? Let me put a few things out there that you might want to consider. And remember, these generalizations are just that â€“ general points that speak to group differences between men and women.
To begin, psychologists distinguish between two types of reasoning that influence our beliefs and decisions. Sometimes simply called system 1 and 2 or intuitive versus analytical, they reflect the difference between a fast, largely unconscious reflection process compared with a slow, effortful logical analysis. Large studies of more than 3,000 Finnish students (where atheism is the dominant national position) by Marjaana Lindeman reveal that belief in the supernatural is linked to the extent to which an individual relies on intuitive thought processes â€“ you know the sort of thing that Malcolm Gladwell writes about in â€˜Blink.â€™ But it is not related to the individual scores on analytical thinking. I interpret this to mean that as individuals, we operate with both modes of thinking but the extent to which we rely on intuition reflects our general tendency towards supernatural belief.
But it canâ€™t all be down to individual differences. This is maybe where the community comes in. Sam Harris (one of the younger, curmudgeonly old males) recently published an intriguing brain imaging study that showed that we donâ€™t like to disagree with other peopleâ€™s beliefs as it activates punishment centres in the brain whereas pleasure centres are activated by agreement. As a social species, we are inclined to believe what others tell us. And who are the more empathetic and social members of the tribe? Woomen, of course.
BTW lest we forget, we are all woomen initially, and if you donâ€™t believe me ask yourself, â€œWhy do men have nipples?â€
Bruce is Director of the Bristol Cognitive Development Centre and holds a chair in the experimental psychology department at Bristol University. He took an undergraduate degree at Dundee University and a Ph.D. at Cambridge. He was a visiting scientist at MIT and associate professor at Harvard. He started his graduate work on low level vision and has been gradually working his way up the central nervous system from the senses to perception to cognition to belief. Now he experiments with the soul – or at least, belief in it. Bruce likes supernatural horror movies and is still a big kid.