The relationship between performance and belief in
paranormal phenomenaThe RelationshipBetween Individual Belief and Performance in Parapsychological Phenomena
The phenomenon of ESP has been the subject of increased interest in recent years. The series of tests carried out formed an observational study into the ESP – related phenomena of telepathy and water divination.
For the telepathy test, the subjects worked in pairs – each individual acting alternately as sender and receiver. When water dowsing, participants worked in threes, with two acting as experimenters and one as the dowsing subject. Before the participants underwent the tests, they were asked to rate their belief in ESP on a score from 1 (belief in ESP) to 10 (no belief).
Of the sixty-six subjects, thirty-one scored higher in the telepathy test than probability; whilst for water dowsing, forty-one scored less – indicating that they were closer to the location of water than probability predicted. Twenty-two participants out-performed probability on both tests.
Unfortunately, as the data was found to be unduly biased, no firm conclusions could be drawn.
Parapsychology is the study of phenomena that are either unusual, or unexplainable in terms of standard scientific principles. In general, they occur very infrequently, but there are ‘a few exceptional “stars” that have regular paranormal experiences and may show seemingly consistent paranormal activity’. (Daniels, M. 1998)
Extra-sensory perception (ESP) is the general term which has been given to any manifestations of ability that cannot be attributed to standard human sensory function. Its main forms are: telepathy – the ability to ‘read’ the thoughts of others, or to receive information from another person without using standard senses; clairvoyance – where individuals are able to use ESP to gain information about their environment; and pre-cognition – the ability to predict future events. Many forms of ESP overlap, so investigators tend to refer to just ESP.
In the last twenty or so years, there have been many studies into the existence of ESP. the main technique used, is the Ganzfeld (German for ‘whole field’) procedure, which was pioneered by Avant (1965). Avant, when researching Gestalt theory, isolated his subjects and placed them in a state of ‘semi-sensory deprivation’. It was Honorton, however who developed the technique for use in parapsychology, whilst trying to measure telepathy. The participant who would be acting as the receiver was placed in a reclining chair with halved, translucent ping-pong balls taped over their eyes and headphones, playing a continuous loop of ‘white noise’, are placed over the ears. A red floodlight directed toward their eyes ensures a uniform visual field (Honorton, 1977). The sender is placed in similar conditions, away from the receiver, and is presented with a visual stimulus of what must be sent. To aid concentration, each pair of subjects undergoes a series of relaxation exercises before the test.
The main, and indeed, obvious, advantage of this technique, is that it removes the possible effects of external stimuli, which would undoubtedly be to the detriment of the experiment.
This study will aim to look at two of the afore-mentioned main forms of ESP: telepathy; and clairvoyance, in the form of water dowsing.
Water dowsing/detection is a skill that has both scientific and commercial value: some businesses employ ‘dowsers’ to help locate unmarked pipes or ducts. It has also been hailed as a universal skill; indeed, the American Society of Dowsers has claimed that “Everyone is born with the ability”. The major hypothesis this study will consider is whether or not all individuals are capable of ‘divining’ the location of water when given basic water dowsing ‘equipment’. A secondary hypothesis is that water dowsing abilities are present in at least some people. That is, although it is unlikely that everyone will perform significantly better than probability (p*0.05); some individuals may do particularly well compared to the sample at large.
A similar set of hypotheses can be stated with regards to telepathy. Is everyone capable of reading other peoples thoughts? Or is it an ability confined to a few members of a sample? Indeed, to what degree can people perceive the thoughts of others: are those who are deemed to be telepathic capable of receiving unconsciously projected information, or does the process only work with the full co-operation of the sender? Also, will there be any overlap with those scoring above probability in each test? In other words, are some individuals exhibiting more than one form of ESP?
Finally, to what extent will people’s belief in parapsychology in general, and ESP in particular, influence their scores; will those scoring higher than chance in the tests be confined to the individuals who claimed to be believers in ESP? one theory is that those who disbelieve will, either consciously or sub-consciously, try to sabotage the results to reinforce their beliefs.
The series of tests carried out formed an observational study. The participants were divided into three groups and each practical was carried out separate from the others. The individuals in each section were divided into pairs, for the telepathy tests, and then threes for participation in the dowsing test. In order to minimise the effect of anomalous results a series of repeat readings were taken: telepathy was repeated thirty-five times; dowsing seven.
The number lists used in the telepathy test contained a sequence of randomly generated numbers.
The participants in the study were the bulk of first –year psychology undergraduates. This can be taken to mean that the majority were of above-average intelligence, and around eighteen or nineteen years of age. Additionally, most were female.
Telepathy: number lists featuring a sequence of thirty-six randomly generated numbers between 1and 6.
Water dowsing: pairs of ‘dowsing rods’: two pieces of relatively strong wire bent to 90?, with ball-point pen shells as handles;
specially constructed boxes, consisting of ten adjacent spatial positions where a cup of water can be hidden.
Due to the large sample used, the participants in the study were split into three groups. Each group undertook both series of tests.
For the telepathy test, the subjects worked in pairs – each individual acting alternately as sender and receiver. Senders worked with the number lists mentioned earlier and tried to telepathically project the sequence to the receiver. The pairs concentrated on each number for six seconds intervals and noted the number of hits, or correct identifications of the number. Five different sets of lists were used. This helped to cut down the possibility of the sender in the first trial simply remembering the sequence when they acted as receivers.
When water dowsing, participants worked in threes, with two acting as experimenters and one as the dowsing subject. The target area was prepared, and the experimenters selected a location (numbered 1 to 10) using pre-prepared random number tables. A plastic cup of water was placed in the location and a lid was placed over the area, so the subject could not physically identify the water’s position. Each subject had to use the dowsing rods to try and divine which position the water was in. Their score was recorded as the difference between the chosen location and the actual location (scores for each trial could be between 0 and 9). The total score was calculated over eight trials. Each member of the three worked as the subject in turn.
Before the participants underwent the tests, they were asked to rate their belief in ESP on a score from 1 (belief in ESP) to 10 (no belief).
The table below shows the processed data. For the ‘raw data’ and mathematical proof for
the processed data, refer to the appendix.
(arbitrary points given on a 10- point scale, for the assessment indicated)Telepathy
(number of correct identifications out of a possible 36)Dowsing
(the total distance ‘out’ from the location of water over eight trials)
Table to show measures of central tendancy and dispersion for the tests
The expected scores for the tests were found to be 6, for telepathy; and 26.4 for water dowsing.
The data for the group can now be compared with the expected values.
Of the sixty-six subjects, thirty-one scored higher in the telepathy test than probability; whilst for water dowsing, forty-one scored less than the expected value – indicating that they were closer to the location of water than probability predicted. Twenty-two participants out-performed probability on both tests.
The data can additionally be assessed with relation to participants belief scores.
Believers (those with belief scores of 4 or less)Agnostics (those with belief scores of 5 or 6)Sceptics (those with belief scores of 7 or more)
Table to show measures of central tendancy and levels of dispersion as categorised by belief score
With regard to the first hypothesis, it should be obvious that dowsing abilities are not freely available to everyone. Also, whilst the majority of the group performed better than expected, no member of the sample was found to have scored significantly highly (p*.05). What definite conclusions can be drawn from this? Unfortunately, relatively few: there were far too many ambiguities in the experimental procedure. The spatial positions were, as mentioned earlier, adjacent; this means that perhaps the divination of the water’s location required too much ‘fine-tuning’. When dowsers are used in industry, they do not have to be accurate to within 50 or 60 millimetres. When searching for pipes etc, they have a larger target area. Also, the subjects involved were not professional dowsers, so even if they did have any divining ability, it was perhaps latent until the test; or the subjects did not have the necessary instruction in the use of their powers.
The light rainfall outside, or even the existence of unmarked pipes near the testing area may have interfered with the test.
With regards to the telepathy hypotheses, it is also clear that no member of the group scored significantly higher than probability (p*.05). Again, however, this does not allow for any sufficient conclusions to be drawn. The tests were carried out in a well-lit room with many pairs working at once. As such, there may have been too many external stimuli that could have distracted both sender and receiver. Sadly, some participants may not have co-operated and decided to not send/ deliberately send misinformation; i.e. sent the wrong sequence. As mentioned earlier, each pair worked in close proximity to several other groups: just one person trying to ‘sabotage’ the test may have thrown off almost every pair working.
It may also be worth noting that many of the participants did not use English as their first language, which may have led to those trying to receive their broadcasts unable to understand what was being sent.
Finally, the correlation between belief and the data obtained must be analysed. Sceptics, it would appear, performed less well than the others. This could just be a coincidence, but perhaps those who did not believe did not try to receive correct information and decided to guess for every trial; or, even worse: when acting as either senders (when doing telepathy), or experimenters (the dowsing test) sceptics deliberately recorded results incorrectly. Alternately, some believers may have done the same in reverse: tried to influence the results positively with regards to ESP. for these reasons, perhaps only the data for the agnostics can be viewed as being of any value. This means that the only data that is free of any bias is that obtained when groups of agnostics worked together. Unfortunately, it is impossible to tell whether agnostics worked with other agnostics, or if their results were distorted by working with sceptics/believers.
This entire study, therefore, cannot be viewed with any great certainty, as accusations of bias can be levelled toward nearly the entire data set, not enabling any real conclusions to be drawn.
Avant, L. L. (1965). Vision in the ganzfeld. Psychological Bulletin, 64, 246-258.As cited in Bem and Honorton, below.
Bem, D.J. and Honorton, C. (1994). Does psi exist? Replicable evidence for an anomalous process of information transfer. Psychological Bulletin, 115, 4-18.
Daniels, M. (1998). Transpersonal psychology and the paranormal. Transpersonal Psychology Review, 2(3), 17-31.
Honorton, C. (1977). Psi and internal attention states. In B. B. Wolman (Ed.), Handbook of parapsychology (pp. 435-472). New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold. As cited in Bem and Honorton, above.