Bruce Hood Ph.D.

The Self Illusion

Stepping on Jesus: Is This a Good Exercise?

Why understanding the power of symbolism is a good exercise in psychology

Posted Apr 04, 2013

The outrage regarding the incident last week where a Florida Atlantic University professor was suspended for asking students to undertake an exercise on symbolism is understandable. As part of a class on the power of symbolism, Dr. Deandre Poole, asked students to write “Jesus” on a piece of paper in big letters, place it on the ground face up, contemplate it for a moment and then step on it based on the instructor’s guide notes taken from a textbook on communication. One student refused and then all hell broke loose in the media.

Soon “stepping” became “stomping” and there were calls for Dr. Poole to be dismissed as indignant Christians reacted to the story. What they may have failed to appreciate is that the exercise was intended to demonstrate the power of symbolism with the full expectation that most students would not comply with the instruction. Rather, they reacted in a way that we have seen before where an act that is seen as disrespectful or sacrilegious, such as caricaturing a deity, has led to violence and death threats. It is sad that they did not fully understand the value of such an exercise when it comes to understanding human psychology.

Whether it is burning flags or drawing cartoons, symbolic destruction is emotionally provocative even in those who do not believe that they would respond in such a way. A few years back we demonstrated that cutting up photographs of sentimental childhood objects produced implicit anxiety as measured by the galvanic skin response in adults even though they predicted that they would not respond negatively. We have also just had a paper accepted in the same journal that demonstrates that soccer fans similarly show increased anxiety when destroying images of their beloved teams as well as pictures of their spouse. Thankfully for the men, there was no difference in the level of anxiety for both destructions. They did not love their teams more than their spouses! We have also completed fMRI imaging studies showing that there is both increased activation in the emotional regions during symbolic destruction as well as frontal activation, which is suggestive that there is an interaction between emotion and thought during these events. Finally, with developmental work due out later, we have shown that young children consider manipulating a photograph to be tantamount to actually changing the subject depicted.

In short, even though we know that symbols are only referents, we respond as if they are the real thing when threatened. No wonder people apparently also refuse to sign a contract to sell their soul to the devil even if they claim not to believe that any such transaction would actually happen. We may be able to engage top down rationality when contemplating symbolic acts but if they involve teddy bears, spouses, yourself or your God, then emotions run high. Belief in voodoo, albeit implicit, is still alive and well in this modern world.