Would You Wear a Killer’s Sweater?

That’s the question Bruce Hood, an experimental psychologist at Bristol University, likes to ask the audience when he gives public lectures. And for the majority of people, the answer is no.
It turns out more people would wear a sweater that was dropped in dog feces and cleaned than one that was worn by a murderer and then washed.
But why? How come we’re disgusted by the idea of touching a killer’s personal possession—especially when it’s a sweater, something we normally associate with feelings of warmth and comfort? It’s not like we can catch evil the way we can catch, say, the flu.
As Hood explains in his new book SuperSense (excerpted today in The Guardian):

“It is as if we treat evil as a physical contaminant that could be transmitted by touch. You can’t wash away such contamination as though it were dirt. Most of us would treat the cardigan as if it were imbued with evil.
In the same way that some of us revere holy sites, priests, and sacred relics, we also shun places, people, and objects that are taboo. To do that, however, we have to attribute something more to them than just their physical properties. We may like to think of ourselves as rational people without superstitions, but this is just one area where we stray into the supernatural.”

The point of the sweater demonstration, he says, is to “illustrate to an educated, rational audience that sometimes our beliefs can be truly supernatural but have nothing to do with religious indoctrination. Atheists, too, tend to show revulsion at the idea of touching [the sweater]. If it’s true that our beliefs can be supernatural but unconnected to religion, then it must also be true that humans will not necessarily evolve into a rational species, because a mind designed for generating natural explanations also generates supernatural ones.”

Check out some of the other supernatural beliefs many people hold:

—Heather Wax

Category: Books


2 Responses

  1. Diggitt says:

    My father died in November 1989. I still have, packed away in its dry cleaning bag, the sweater I wore during his last couple days. I can’t wear it and I have never been able to decide where to give it away to … no place seems right.

    In 1970 I was assaulted and although the clothes I was wearing at the time were newish, I could never touch them again.

    In 1973, my boyfriend broke up with me. I got raging drunk and threw up on the clothes I was wearing. Not only was I never able to wear them again (although they cleaned up fine) I have never been able to wear that color again.

    I’ve been a volunteer with a homeless program for the last 22 years. Another volunteer is a funeral director, who speaks with families of the deceased about donating their clothes. Most families he speaks to are happy to get the clothing out of their homes. There’s no sense of “Oh, I always wanted that sweater — can I have it?”

    We have the luxury of being squeamish about clothing and its associations. It would be interesting to try the experiment with the murderer’s jacket someplace where people have little new clothing.

  2. […] people if they’d be willing to wear Hitler’s sweater certainly raises the issue of moral contagion and its physicality. Contagion for germs is, of […]

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