A respected psychologist is publishing experimental findings which suggest that we can be subconsciously affected by what happens in the near future.
History records many instances of people apparently seeing into the future, whether through visions, dreams, premonitions or déjà vu. These are usually explained away by sceptics as mere coincidence and wishful thinking.
Now, however, the mainstream Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, a flagship of the American Psychological Association (APA) and one of the most important academic journals in its field, is publishing a paper which appears to provide scientific evidence for precognition.
Feeling the future
This paper is the culmination of eight years’ work by respected social psychologist Daryl Bem (right) of Cornell University.
Alongside his ‘orthodox’ psychological studies of attitudes and personality, Bem has frequently conducted experiments in parapsychology and ESP. He suspects there could be a link between psychic phenomena and quantum mechanics.
His paper is entitled:
“I purposely waited until I thought there was a critical mass [of evidence] that wasn’t a statistical fluke,” he says.
If the results are valid, then they provide compelling evidence for a psychic phenomenon.
“I took effects that all psychologists believe in and I reversed them in time.” — Bem
Bem has devised some ingenious experiments to test for ‘psi’ — the term used by parapsychologists for psychic phenomena. Bem’s experiments are based on a variety of classic psychological effects which are well known and easily produced in the lab. His trick, however, has been to run the experiments backwards — that is, to see if the usual effects can occur before the events which normally produce them.
In a typical psychology experiment, the researcher presents you a bunch of carefully-controlled stimuli (these could be words, pictures, situations) and then records or measures your responses to those stimuli.
For example, she shows you a set of words (stimuli) and then asks you to repeat all the words back (response), recording how many of the words you can remember and how long it takes you.
Using this method, psychologists have discovered a number of interesting effects such as:
- Priming effects — a subtle enhancement of perception. Seeing a certain kind of stimulus now (an apple, say) makes you respond quicker to something like it a short while later (other fruit).
- Subliminal effects — reactions caused by stimuli that are shown so briefly (a fraction of a second) that they are not consciously perceived, but are still subconsciously processed by the brain. A subliminal erotic image, for example, might provoke a momentary arousal response, even though you have no conscious reason to be feeling aroused.
There is nothing weird about these effects — they are normal findings in psychology labs all over the world.
But Bem tells of a certain finding with subliminal stimuli which, if true, is remarkable.
Researchers, he says, have sometimes detected arousal occurring just before a subliminal erotic image is shown.
Apparently, this presentiment effect has been repeatedly observed by different researchers — e.g., Radin (1997); Bierman & Scholte (2002); Spottiswoode & May (2003) — so it may actually be a reliable phenomenon.
Now Bem has looked for this presentiment effect in a controlled setting by running standard stimulus-response experiments in reverse order. That is, response then stimulus.
One of Bem’s experiments, for example, time-reversed an effect known as facilitation of recall. This involved three steps:
- First, volunteers were shown a long list of words.
- Second, they were asked to remember (recall) as many as possible.
- Third, they were then asked to type a set of words — these words were randomly selected by computer from the original list.
Normally, step 3 would go first and the psychologist would look for a memory facilitation effect — the influence of seeing (typing) certain words on the subsequent memory task.
But in this experiment, the volunteers proved significantly better at recalling words (in step 2) which — unbeknownst to them — they would later be asked to type (in step 3).
This looks very much like backward causation — or what Bem calls retroactive influence. Logically, a stimulus should have zero effect on any response that has already been made. But Bem’s experiments suggest otherwise.
Let’s look at another example in more detail.
Precognitive detection of erotic stimuli
Human beings, like other animals, are hard wired to react both to threats and to opportunities. The moment we see a tiger coming towards us, we have instinctive bodily reactions which instantly prepare us for running away. Similarly, when we meet an attractive potential mate, we have automatic physical reactions which focus us on getting intimate.
These approach/avoidance reactions can be observed in the psychology lab, at least very mildly and briefly, by showing people subliminal images that are either threatening or arousing.
But if people show a reaction just before being shown such a stimulus, then we may have something very unusual — a presentiment effect.
In Bem’s first experiment, 100 volunteers (50 male and 50 female undergraduates) took part as the experimental subjects. In the lab, the subjects sat in front of a computer screen. On the screen were pictures of two curtains, side by side.
The subjects were told that
“One of them has a picture behind it; the other has a blank wall behind it. Your task is to click on the curtain that you feel has the picture behind it. The curtain will then open, permitting you to see if you selected the correct curtain. … Several of the pictures contain explicit erotic images (e.g., couples engaged in nonviolent but explicit consensual sexual acts). If you object to seeing such images, you should not participate in this experiment.”
Each subject was shown 36 pairs of curtains in random order. Erotic pictures were interspersed with equal numbers of other hidden pictures, either positive, negative or neutral. The sequence of pictures and their left/right location behind the curtains were randomly selected by the computer while the experiment was running.
Bem explains a subtle aspect of this set-up:
“From the participants’ point of view, this procedure appears to test for clairvoyance. That is, they were told that a picture was hidden behind one of the curtains and their challenge was to guess correctly which curtain concealed the picture. In fact, however, neither the picture itself nor its left/right position was determined until after the participant recorded his or her guess, making the procedure a test of detecting a future event, that is, a test of precognition.”
Apart from anything else, this ensured that the subjects could not be picking up information about the correct response from either the research team or the computer, as the actual position of the picture had yet to be determined when their decision was being made.
Better than chance?
So, having run 100 subjects through the experiment let’s now look at their hit rates. That is, how often they guessed (predicted) the correct left/right position where pictures would appear.
By chance alone, a chimpanzee should score 50% or very close to it. In other words, if you have a random choice between left or right, you ought to guess get it correctly half the time by sheer accident. So if there is no psychic effect at work, we would expect a hit rate of precisely that — 50%.
Bem’s results showed that when the pictures-to-come were neutral or non-erotic, the hit rate was indeed 50%. But when the pictures-to-come were erotic, the hit rate was 53%.
This may not seem like a big difference, but statistically it is just enough to raise a few eyebrows. The hit rate should be 50%. A 3% rise in hit rate based on 3,600 data points is beyond the margin of error — but only just.
Intriguingly, Bem asked each subject to respond to a couple of personality questions when they first turned up for the experiment. These questions assessed a component of personality known as stimulus-seeking. Those who score high in stimulus-seeking have an intolerance of boredom and a tendency to look for excitement and entertainment. Previous parapsychology research has found that such people appear to show a higher psychic response.
Bem found that the hit rate just among those who scored high in stimulus-seeking was an impressive 58%.
Criticism and controversy
Not surprisingly, Bem’s paper has been subjected to a lot of scrutiny, criticism and outright rejection. The sceptics have come out in force. And perhaps for good reason. Having read a good deal of the criticism, I think a degree of caution is certainly valid.
- The main criticism is Bem’s haphazard way of running experiments. For example, he declares that half-way through experiment 1 he changed his mind about how many erotic or no-erotic stimuli he was using and also made some of the erotic stimuli more pornographic. That’s a no-no. You don’t alter a formal experiment in mid-stream: you call it a pilot study and start again.
- Another criticism is Bem’s rather perplexing approach to reporting his experiments. At some point, for example, he says that “experiment 1 draws from lessons learned in an earlier experiment, which is reported here as experiment 5.” Experiment 5 actually came before experiment 1? Why has he not reported his experiments in their natural order? He gives no explanation — another no-no in science.
- Do Bem’s results show a real effect — or they just a blip? A lot hinges on what we make of statistical measures of what constitutes a real effect. And here is where Bem has opened up a huge can of worms — one that affects the social sciences as a whole. Statistical tests tell social scientists how likely it is that their results, whatever they are, are mere chance. By convention, if a statistical test finds that the likelihood (probability) is less than 0.05 (equivalent to 5%), then the results are accepted as “significant” — in other words, you can be 95% confident that they’re not just a blip. Look through virtually any paper on experimental psychology and at some point the author will report their results of the experiment followed by the “p” value (probability) found by some statistical test or other. For example: “group A performed significantly faster than group B (p = 0.025).” This has been standard procedure in the social sciences for an entire century — but some statisticians have been calling it into question. They argue that traditional tests overstate the significance of “p less than 0.05”. And that means that researchers could be unwittingly reporting a lot of false positives. Bem points out that “Everyone believes that taking a baby aspirin daily helps prevent heart attacks, but that effect is actually smaller than what I saw in my psi experiments.” It remains to be seen if the aspirin findings are more than a blip.
- Finally, the available pre-print of the paper doesn’t show us what the experimental stimuli actually looked like — Ok, they included some pornographic images, but to not show even one or two suitably pixellated examples — nor any examples of the so-called “positive”, “negative” and “neutral” images — is frustrating for anyone who wants to re-do the experiment for themselves. One of the basic tenets of scientific reporting is that you make it possible for other scientists to follow your exact procedures so that they can see if they get the same results — as Bem himself understands:
“I wanted to interest people in trying to repeat my work because replication is the gold standard of whether you should believe something.” — Bem
The publication of the paper itself is proving to be as controversial as the findings. While some are asking how valid Bem’s data are, others are asking whether a paper on parapsychology should be published at all in a major journal on social psychology.
But outright rejection of Bem’s research as nonsense is no good. Those who dismiss such research out of hand without checking just sound like the sceptics who refused to look through a telescope to see for themselves what Galileo might have discovered. Scientific findings (or non-findings) have to be replicated by others so that a case can be built, one way or the other.
In fact, even though Bem’s paper has yet to be officially published, we’ve already got two replication attempts reported on the Social Sciences Research Network, one successful and one unsuccessful (Batthyany, 2010; Galak & Nelson, 2010).
I think Bem deserves credit for ingenuity and hopefully there will be a flurry of new, rigourous experiments in this fascinating area.
Bem, D. (in press) Feeling the future: Experimental evidence for anomalous retroactive influences on cognition and affect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Preprint version: http://dbem.ws/FeelingFuture.pdf
- Is this evidence that we can see the future? (11 Nov 2010) http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn19712-is-this-evidence-that-we-can-see-the-future.html
- Parapsychology: lessons from the fringe (11 Nov 2010) http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20827873.100-parapsychology-lessons-from-the-fringe.html
- Can we perceive the future? (Interview with Daryl Bem) (18 Dec 2010, pages 30-31). Online prview is entitled “Psi investigator: On magic and being a maverick” http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20827915.700-psi-investigator-on-magic-and-being-a-maverick.html
- Precognition and porn: New evidence for psi? (FT270) http://www.forteantimes.com/strangedays/science/4729/precognition_and_porn.html
NEW YORK TIMES:
- Journal’s paper on ESP expected to prompt outrage (5 Jan 2011) http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/06/science/06esp.html
Batthyany, A. (2010) Retrocausal habituation and induction of boredom: A successful replication of Bem (2010; Studies 5 and 7). Abstract: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1715954
Bierman, D. J., & Scholte, H. S. (2002). Anomalous anticipatory brain activation preceding exposure of emotional and neutral pictures. Paper presented at the meeting of the Parapsychological Association, Paris, France (August 2002).
Galak, J. & Nelson, L. D. (2010) A replication of the procedures from Bem [2010, Study 8] and a failure to replicate the same results (October 29, 2010). Abstract: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1699970
Radin, D. I. (1997). Unconscious perception of future emotions: An experiment in presentiment. Journal of Scientific Exploration, 11, 163–180.
Spottiswoode, S. J. P., & May, E. C. (2003). Skin conductance prestimulus response: Analyses, artifacts and a pilot study. Journal of Scientific Exploration, 17, 617–641.