The best books on magical thinking and superstition

Bruce M. Hood Author Of SuperSense: Why We Believe in the Unbelievable
By Bruce M. Hood

Who am I?

When I was a child, I was fascinated by the supernatural and wanted to believe in the paranormal. On reaching university, I discovered there was no reliable evidence for such phenomena but rather there was a much more satisfying explanation based on the weaknesses and wishes of human psychology. Development is critical to human psychology and as I specialized in children’s thinking, I found more reasons to understand the natural origins of the peculiarities of our reasoning. SuperSense was my first popular science book to expound my ideas, but all of my subsequent books apply similar novel ways of explaining human behaviour from surprising perspectives. 


I wrote...

SuperSense: Why We Believe in the Unbelievable

By Bruce Hood,

Book cover of SuperSense: Why We Believe in the Unbelievable

What is my book about?

Would you willingly wear the cardigan of a killer? Do you think you can tell when you are being watched by someone you can’t see? Do you believe in ghosts or spirits? Even in this modern scientific era, most people believe in phenomena that if true would violate the laws of Nature. Even individuals who are not religious hold supernatural beliefs even though they may not be aware of them. In SuperSense, I trace the origin of magical thinking to the development of children’s thinking. Rather than indoctrination, I argue that children are naturally inclined to infer the presence of hidden structure, energies, essences, and all manner of causal entities that lay the foundation for later adult magical beliefs that can operate implicitly in our thinking. 

The books I picked & why

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The God Delusion

By Richard Dawkins,

Book cover of The God Delusion

Why this book?

This was the book that impelled me to write my own account of superstition. I could have also recommended his masterpiece, The Selfish Gene, which I read as a teenager and got me into science in the first place but this unforgiving attack on religion spurred me to write a more balanced view that considered religion as a naturally emerging consequence of cognitive development. In fairness, The God Delusion does briefly mention evidence in support of a natural inclination, but this is outweighed by an agenda (that I do not share) to eradicate religion as pernicious indoctrination. Whatever your opinion of Dawkins, he is undeniably one of the most gifted science writers with a clarity of argument combined with a poetic beauty of prose.


Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time

By Michael Shermer,

Book cover of Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time

Why this book?

Shermer has long been a champion of rationality, exposing fraudsters and scam artists. He is a brilliant orator as well as a science communicator in his writing. Here he attacks superstition, pseudoscience, and anti-science beliefs such as creationism. In his typical acerbic wit, he demolishes many of the deeply held beliefs that he argues hold back the progression of humanity and society. Not as extreme nor focused on religion, Shermer points his critical finger at all unfounded claims, especially those that exploit others.


Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition

By Stuart A. Vyse,

Book cover of Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition

Why this book?

This book examines the psychology of superstition from the perspective of cognitive science and fallibility of human reasoning. Rather than dismissing superstitious behaviour, Vyse provides a comprehensive explanation of why we continue to hold such beliefs as a function of the way our minds work. This was the book that really inspired me to examine the developmental origins of magical thinking.


White Bears and Other Unwanted Thoughts: Suppression, Obsession, and the Psychology of Mental Control

By Daniel M. Wegner,

Book cover of White Bears and Other Unwanted Thoughts: Suppression, Obsession, and the Psychology of Mental Control

Why this book?

This is an easily accessible book based on Wegner's brilliant work on consciousness and mental control. I have always found Wegner’s work utterly fascinating as it provides such a convincing picture of a mind constantly in a struggle to think coherently – something that I easily recognise in my own conscious awareness. The findings on intrusive implicit thoughts were particularly influential in my own writing about the conflict between dormant thoughts and conscious appraisal that may be factors in why magical thinking surfaces in the rational mind.


How We Know What Isn't So

By Thomas Gilovich,

Book cover of How We Know What Isn't So

Why this book?

Gilovich is one of the leading experts in social psychology with a broad scope of influence. Here he demonstrates that common erroneous beliefs are the product of both cognitive illusions and social shortcomings. Unlike accounts for superstition that appeal to indoctrination, ignorance stupidity, or gullibility, the book examines how normal cognitive processes of reason and judgment, which are usually effective and efficient strategies, can also easily produce the sorts of beliefs that are magical or supernatural.


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