The Cardigan Professor

Graham James, Bishop of Norwich

Last month , the Bishop of Norwich gave a presidential address concerning my work and the recent tour of the religious relics of St. Thérèse de Lisieux in the UK. He began his address, “Bruce Hood must be a rather entertaining professor at Bristol University,” and then went on to recount the Fred West cardigan stunt that I executed back in 2006 at a British Science Festival held in Norwich of all places. (You can read about it in Chapter two!). Anyway, his point was that everyone can respond in an irrational way to an object and that the criticism from Matthew Parris in The Times, “St. Thérèse de Lisieu: come out, atheists, and fight,” about devout Catholics revering and praying to bones failed to acknowledge that humans are naturally inclined to such supernatural beliefs. He’s got a point. Religious relics are on a continuum with sports memorabilia. Our adulation of objects is not something restricted to religion though I doubt we believe that sports memorabilia can heal the sick and stop wars.

The Infamous Cardigan

The killer’s cardigan was a good stunt but it was only that. The way it is described in the media would suggest that I have done extensive research on moral contagion. Moreover, it was really all Paul Rozin’s idea in the first place. He asked participants to wear a Nazi cap in his early studies on moral contagion. All I did was adapt the idea for a stunt to demonstrate the immediate emotional reaction we can experience when asked to wear a piece of clothing worn by someone who is morally repugnant. From that early demonstration, I have become known as the cardigan professor. Andy Marr on “Start the Week” made me talk about it and it invariably comes up in other interviews. I have written apologetically to Paul Rozin, but a man of his intellectual stature and brilliance was not irked by this misattribution in the media. Actually, you may have noticed that Rozin’s name crops up again and again in the writings of Pinker, Gladwell, Bloom and many others writing pop science about the mind.

At the moment, I have students working on experimental variations of moral contamination from objects and in due course, this research will see the light of day by which time I would imagine that the world has moved on and forgotten about Fred West’s clothing. Still, I do feel uncomfortable about being the cardigan professor.


Filed under book publicity, In the News

7 responses to “The Cardigan Professor

  1. Cardigans are not sexy.
    You need an artifact with a little more pizazz like some mass murder’s sunglasses. Then you could be Professor Shades.

    A very entertaining professor, indeed.

  2. brucehood

    Hi Tricia. Good to hear from you. Shades might work but a toothbrush would be better. Even couples in love get grossed out by sharing these. Not too surprising really.

  3. It could be worse….

    …it could have been underpants.

  4. FWIW, I would be far more creeped out by a Nazi cap than by Fred West’s cardigan. The reason: symbolism. Last time I checked, caridgans are not the uniforms of serial killers… but wearing something that was part of a Nazi uniform, well, it would make me feel like, by sporting that symbol, I was endorsing Nazism.

    There’s also one other important difference between sports memorabilia and religious relics: Provenance. It is considered terribly scandalous (and illegal!) to pass off sports memorabilia as something it is not, e.g. forged signatures, lying about the significance of a ball or other piece of equipment, etc. In fact, there is a whole industry involved in authenticating it. Yes, it may be irrational and supernatural to value this jersey over this other jersey just because one was worn by a famous athlete, but at least the buyer is not being deceived. The decision to indulge their supersense is entirely up to them.

    On the other hand, who is authenticating religious relics? The Catholic church? i.e. the people who want to make money off them in the first place? Nice. In fact, as an anecdote early in your book about James Randi relates, there is a lot of suggestive evidence that it is business as usual for religious relics to be fakes.

    Does it matter from a strictly rational point of view? Well, yes, actually. Even if you are describing a quality of something which should not matter when evaluated rationally, one still ought not to lie about it.

    • brucehood

      Too true James. Though the memorabilia issue isn’t simply an authentication one. For example, one of bidders for the Mark McGwire $3m 70th home run ball wanted to chop it up into tiny threads and then insert each thread into a new ball that would sell for $30. That’s pure essentialism.

  5. Tessa K

    I saw a programme on TV a while ago about how monks made up the whole Glastonbury myth to cash in on income from pilgrims.

    Nazi memorabilia is an interesting one as there is a transgressive element to wearing it. Some people on the fetish scene wear Nazi uniforms and there was of course the case of Max Moseley.

    I liked the serial killer’s cardie idea precisely because a cardie is normally a comfort object, not something with heavy cultural significance like a uniform.

    I blogged on St Therese myself, comparing her relics with Michael Jackson’s:

    I do love a bit of Catholic nonsense.

  6. Bruce,
    How funny, the cardigan professor. But yes, it’s better than boxers or a toothbrush.

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