My Child the Scientist

Thoughts about cognitive development from the eyes of an expectant father

This Entry is not about The Sexual Paradox

A review of Bruce Hood's book Supersense

I'm not going into my office that much this semester. When I do, I always check my mailbox, just to make sure things don't pile up. Last week, I found myself there on Friday. In my box was an envelope with a Simon and Schuster mailing label (actually from Scribner publishing, which is now owned by S&S, I guess). I opened it to reveal a book - Susan Pinker's The Sexual Paradox - and a single page, which contained (on both sides) a number of positive reviews of the book. There was no letter, no contact person, and no explanation for why I received this book.

A brief investigation of the cover (and the double-sided page of praise) suggested the book is about gender differences, and is focused in particular on gender inequality in the workplace. I don't study gender differences, either in development or adult cognition. In my 14+ years studying cognitive development and adult cognition, I've found exactly two significant gender differences in studies. In both cases, my colleagues and I couldn't replicate them, and we dismissed them as statistical anomalies.

I also noticed that this wasn't a department-wide or university-wide mailing; I asked some of my colleagues, and none of them received the same package. I was the only one who received this package.

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A more detailed investigation of the envelope found a single word written above the return address label: "Maxx" A search of the Simon and Schuster website for this word didn't reveal much (just an author - Maxx Ardman - who contributed to a volume called Take my Advice). Seemed like a dead end.

Finally, I'd like to think that this wasn't a message sent to me anonymously saying that I need to think more about mentoring or supervising one gender over another. This seems a little elaborate, and I suppose if this were the case, an instructional letter or word of advice might have accompanied it, not the page of praise. Also, I've always thought I have a pretty good track record of mentoring women - 17 of the 20 students I've sent to graduate school from Brown are women. I've also been my department's Affirmative Action representative for the past two years.

Confused yet? Me too. I honestly have no idea why I received this book. I've never received a book outside my area before, and certainly never without a letter of explanation. This is not to say that I've never gotten a book in the mail randomly - but usually it's a new textbook in Cognition or Development, with a letter from the publisher asking me to consider adopting it for one of my classes.

When I told my wife this story, she actually came up with the same hypothesis that I did. Maybe someone at the publishing company knew that I was writing this blog, and figured they would send me a copy of the book under the impression that I would write about the book - free publicity for them, and a blog entry (and free book) for me.

OK. This can't be right. Just absolutely can't be right. Not in a million years right. Yet, why did both my wife and I think of it? I mentioned it to my colleagues as well, and they all thought it was a possible (but not probable) explanation. Now, I'm sure Pinker's book is a nice piece of scholarship, but I'm a developmental psychologist who doesn't study gender differences, and I haven't read her book. I just received it under mysterious circumstances.

Why is my (and my wife's and colleagues') explanation plausible? I think Bruce Hood, a professor at the University of Bristol, has the answer. In his book Supersense, he examines why it is that human beings hold various forms of supernatural beliefs. His argument is that we seek out explanations of human experience in the course of our interacting with the world. We notice patterns among events where none might exist, and we infer mechanisms between actions (particularly our own actions) and outcomes that might be nonexistent. This is the "supersense" on which the book is based.

I had a lot of fun reading this book. It's well-written and filled with examples that should resonate with both the scientist and layperson. For example, Hood writes that most rituals emerges from this supersense - repetitive behaviors that have no mechanistic relation to an outcome often emerge from successful action (his example is John McEnroe, who never stepped on the lines when serving a tennis ball - clearly a learned behavior from successful actions). But more than our own ritualistic inventions, we collectively believe in supernatural mechanisms just from association. For example, Hood argues that most people wouldn't wear a murderer's sweater (he apparently brings a cardigan with him when he speaks publically, and claims it was owned by a convicted killer. He asks members of the audience if they would come up and put it on, and most refuse). Why wouldn't you wear a killer's cardigan? Hood argues that we believe that the evil associated with the act of murder will somehow be transmitted to us, simply by putting on the sweater.

Hood also argues that many of these beliefs begin in childhood. I certainly agree with this idea. Tamar Kushnir and Alison Gopnik published an article in Psychological Science in 2005 that supports this idea. They found that preschoolers are biased by the results of their own actions. They showed children a machine that lit up and played music when objects were placed on it. In one condition, an experimenter showed 4-year-olds two different wooded blocks (which I'll call A and B). The experimenter placed Block A on the machine three times, and the machine activated twice. She then placed Block B on the machine three times, and the machine activated once. Children were then asked which block was more likely to make the machine go, and the majority of them picked Block A (more so than chance).

In their other condition, the same blocks and machine were used, but now the child had an opportunity during the demonstration to act on the machine. The experimenter first put Block A on the machine twice, which activated both times. Then she handed Block A to the child, who put it on the machine, which did not activate. The experimenter then put Block B on the machine twice, which failed to activate, but when the child put it on the machine, it did so. Note that the frequency with which the blocks activate the machine is same as in the previous condition - Block A makes the machine go 2 out of 3 times while Block B does so 1 out of 3 times. What differs is how the child's own action interacts with the efficacy. For the block that activates the machine more overall, the one time it doesn't is when the child puts it on the machine (and opposite for Block B). Children were heavily influenced by their own action. In this condition, they chose Block B as the one that was more likely to make the machine go, more so than in the previous condition.

What these data suggest is that preschoolers think that regardless of the overall probabilistic outcomes, their own actions affect their belief structure. This resonates well with Hood's argument about how rituals emerge. If we think our own actions are more important than observations of others' actions, then we are bound to repeat those actions when we observe success.

I also really enjoyed reading about Hood's work with Paul Bloom (which appears in a 2008 issue of Cognition). They introduced children to a "Copy Machine" - a machine that makes exact duplicates of objects (through a mechanism unbeknownst to the child, but that is actually demonstrated through a slight of hand - in reality, it is just a magic trick, and children are shown this at the end of the experiment). Hood and Bloom found that children were willing to accept duplicates of many kinds of familiar objects, except one specific kind - attachment objects like their security blanket or a special stuffed animal (actually, they almost never would allow these objects to be duplicated in the first place). Children recognize that an object's experience is as critical to its identity as its physical appearance. A security blanket makes a child feel safe because he's had it for a long time, and thus it's worth more than a similar looking, but novel blanket. In this way, some of us would pay huge amounts of money for collectibles, not because we want to use JFK's golf clubs, but because we want to admire the fact that we're associated with someone we admire.

One of the things I find so interesting about this work is that my former student Claire Cook and I have a manuscript under review right now about children's intuitions about the possibility of machines in the real world. We find that preschoolers deny the possibility of machines that violate real-world causal structure. What's interesting to me is that before seeing a "Copy Machine," I would bet that children would flatly deny its existence (we don't use this example, but many similar to it). But, they can reason about it (in quite subtle ways) after just seeing it live. This strikes me as evidence that children can learn about technology incredibly easily, which is potentially why each generation seems more technologically sophisticated than the next.

Finally, Hood also argues that one's supersense could be broken - he argues that Capgras Syndrome, in which individuals believe that people in their lives have been replaced with duplicates, might be evidence for impaired supersense. I'm not sure what I think about this argument, but it resonated with me, as the next piece of fiction to read is Richard Power's The Echo Maker, which is also about Capgras Syndrome. I haven't really thought about this deeply, but found the connection interesting.

That said, I will mention that some of the examples in Supersense are not for the faint of heart (the chapter on receiving a heart transplant from a murderer is definitely rated R). But even if some of the book's examples are a little ghoulish, they reflect profound aspects of human nature. The scholarship is impressive, and Hood nicely describes how supernatural thinking fits into our ordinary human experience.

So, what made me think of Hood's book upon receiving The Sexual Paradox. Well, given the mysterious way in which I received this book, and given that my wife, my colleagues, and I could only come up with the explanation that we did, I'm believe that my (and my wife's and colleagues') supersenses are working just fine. We all come up with explanations to explain events, some that involve real-world causality, others that don't. Here's an explanation that doesn't: Last April, at a conference, I had a brief conversation with Hood, and mentioned that I was starting this blog. Isn't it possible that Hood sent me a copy of The Sexual Paradox in this mysterious manner so that it would encourage me to review his book? Of course it isn't, and obviously this is my supersense working overtime.


Dave Sobel is an Associate Professor at Brown University. He studies cognitive development in infants and preschoolers.

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