The month of October is associated with falling leaves, autumn winds and Halloween. But for sports fans in the US, it also signals a high point in America’s national pastime: baseball’s postseason. After a long run of 162 games, the last weeks of October are ripe with matchups in which legends are made and broken. Any skeptic worth his or her salt, however, can’t help but marvel at the diversity and frequency of ritualistic behaviors on display amongst these world-class athletes. What is it about baseball that cause intelligent, highly-motivated, elite athletes to refrain from washing their underwear, to eat fried chicken or crunchy taco supremes, to put pennies in their supporters after every win, or chew the same piece of gum night after night, saving it under a baseball cap? The repertoire of routines that batters engage in while stepping into the box is often as choreographed as a ballet: with commentators going so far as calling Mike Hargrove the human rain delay because of his extended dance.
To navigate this swamp of superstition, we talked to Bruce Hood, a Canadian-born experimental psychologist, whose popular book SuperSense: Why We Believe in the Unbelievable, has shed light on our tendency towards irrational behaviors. Professor Hood is the director of the Bristol Cognitive Development Centre at the University of Bristol, where he studies the origins of supernatural beliefs, intuitive theory formation, inhibitory control and general cognitive development. He has been awarded a Sloan Fellowship among other honors, and is a Fellow of the American Psychological Science society. In 2011, he delivered the Royal Institution Christmas lectures broadcast by the BBC to over 4 million viewers. His most recent book is the Self Illusion, which calls into question our view of ourselves as coherent, integrated individuals.