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 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.