Would You Wear Hitler’s Sweater?

The Art of Thinking Clearly - Rolf Dobelli 2014

Would You Wear Hitler’s Sweater?

Contagion Bias

Following the collapse of the Carolingian Empire in the ninth century, Europe, especially France, descended into anarchy. Counts, commanders, knights, and other local rulers were perpetually embroiled in battles. The ruthless warriors looted farms, raped women, trampled fields, kidnapped pastors, and set convents alight. Both the Church and the unarmed farmers were powerless against the nobles’ savage warmongering.

In the tenth century, a French bishop had an idea. He asked the princes and knights to assemble in a field. Meanwhile, priests, bishops, and abbots gathered all the relics that they could muster from the area and displayed them there. It was a striking sight: bones, blood-soaked rags, bricks, and tiles—anything that had ever come in contact with a saint. The bishop, at that time a person of respect, then called upon the nobles, in the presence of the relics, to renounce unbridled violence and attacks against the unarmed. In order to add weight to his demand, he waved the bloody clothes and holy bones in front of them. The nobles must have had enormous reverence for such symbols: The bishop’s unique appeal to their conscience spread throughout Europe, promoting the “Peace and Truce of God.” “One should never underestimate the fear of saints in the Middle Ages and of saints’ relics,” says American historian Philip Daileader.

As an enlightened person, you can only laugh at this silly superstition. But wait: What if I put it to you this way? Would you put on a freshly laundered sweater that Hitler had once worn? Probably not, right? So, it seems that you haven’t lost all respect for intangible forces, either. Essentially, this sweater has nothing to do with Hitler anymore. There isn’t a single molecule of Hitler’s sweat on it. However, the prospect of putting it on still puts you off. It’s more than just a matter of respect. Yes, we want to project a “correct” image to our fellow humans and to ourselves, but the thought puts us off even when we are alone and when we convince ourselves that touching this sweater does not endorse Hitler in any way. This emotional reaction is difficult to override. Even those who consider themselves quite rational have a hard time completely banishing the belief in mysterious forces (me included).

Mysterious powers of this kind can’t simply be switched off. Paul Rozin and his research colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania asked test subjects to bring in photos of loved ones. These were pinned to the center of targets and the subjects had to shoot darts at them. Riddling a picture with darts does no harm to the person in it but, nevertheless, the subjects’ hesitation was palpable. They were much less accurate than a control group that had shot at regular targets beforehand. The test subjects behaved as if a mystic force prevented them from hitting the photos.

The contagion bias describes how we are incapable of ignoring the connection we feel to certain items—be they from long ago or only indirectly related (as with the photos). A friend was a longtime war correspondent for the French public television channel France 2. Just as passengers on a Caribbean cruise take home souvenirs from each island—a straw hat or a painted coconut—my friend also collected mementos from her adventures. One of her last missions was to Baghdad in 2003. A few hours after American troops stormed Saddam Hussein’s government palace, she crept into the private quarters. In the dining room, she spotted six gold-plated wineglasses and promptly commandeered them. When I attended one of her dinner parties in Paris recently, the gilded goblets had pride of place on the dining table. “Are these from Galeries Lafayette?” one person asked. “No, they are from Saddam Hussein,” she said candidly. A horrified guest spat his wine back into the glass and began to splutter uncontrollably. I had to contribute: “You realize how many molecules you’ve already shared with Saddam, simply by breathing?” I asked. “About a billion per breath.” His cough got even worse.