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Precognition and Porn

New evidence for PSI?

Precognition and Porn

Photo by Three Lions/Getty Images


It’s rare for academic parapsychological research to garner coverage in the mainstream press, but a paper by Professor Daryl J Bem of Cornell University has managed to cause something of a stir outside the usual circles. Perhaps that’s because its author, unlike his mostly cautious and often actively sceptical academic peers, claims to have produced results suggesting that humans are capable of such feats as precognition and premonition.

Prof. Bem of Cornell University, New York State, carried out a series of nine different experiments involving over 1,000 volunteer students, and has published the results in a paper entitled “Feeling the Future: Experimental Evidence for Anomalous Retroactive Influences on Cognition and Affect”, which will appear in the peer-reviewed Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Bem, a self-described maverick, started out as a physicist but switched fields in the 1960s, becoming a social psychologist. He has held senior posts at Cornell, Stanford and Harvard, and has published widely on self-perception, personality theory and sexual orientation. He also has a long-standing interest in psi, and this paper is the culmination of eight years of research.

Bem defines psi as “anomalous processes of information or energy transfer that are currently unexplained in terms of known physical or biological mechanisms”, and chose to study “precognition (conscious cognitive awareness) and premonition (affective apprehension) of a future event that could not otherwise be anticipated through any known inferential process”. His methodology was simple, testing for “anomalous retroactive influence of some future event on an individual’s current responses” by “time reversing” well-established psychological effects “so that the individual’s responses are obtained before the putatively causal stimulus events occur”.

One experiment involved the students being shown a long list of words and being asked to remember as many as possible. They were then asked to type a selection of words randomly selected by computer from the original list. In an apparently striking example of causality seemingly working in reverse, the students proved significantly better at recalling words they would later type.

In another experiment, devised to test precognition, Bem provided his volunteers with the following instructions: “This is an experiment that tests for ESP. It takes about 20 minutes and is run completely by computer. First you will answer a couple of brief questions. Then, on each trial of the experiment, pictures of two curtains will appear on the screen side by side. 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. There will be 36 trials in all. 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.”

Which curtain covered an image was selected randomly by computer, which should have given subjects a 50 per cent chance of correctly locating the image. The results were interesting, to say the least, with subjects achieving an overall hit-rate of 53.1 per cent for the pornographic pictures; while this may not sound all that impressive, statistically speaking it is significantly above chance. Their hit-rate on the neutral, non-erotic pictures was 49.8 per cent. Similar above-chance results were found in eight of the nine experiments, and across all nine an average ‘affect size’ of 0.22 was obtained.

Bem’s hope is that his results will be taken seriously in academia. Certainly, his tests both build upon well-known experimental paradigms and take care to minimise the contact between experimenter and subject – even the data collection is an automated process. The paper passed the peer-review process, with Charles Judd, who oversaw it for the JPSP, commenting that the some of the journal’s “most trusted reviewers” were involved. Even psi-sceptic Joachim Kreuger of Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, was uncharacteristically impressed. “My personal view is that this is ridiculous and can’t be true,” he wrote. “Going after the methodology and the experimental design is the first line of attack. But frankly, I didn’t see anything. Everything seemed to be in good order.” He also found Bem’s method of using time-reversed versions of established psychological phenomena “a stroke of genius”, providing psychologists with tests that could be easily evaluated, and perhaps more importantly, replicated elsewhere.

Such replicability was one of Bem’s main aims in constructing the experiments, and ‘replication packs’ are available online for others to use. We have no doubt that sceptical (para)psychologists everywhere will soon be running their own tests in the hope of demonstrating that Bem’s results – like those of most psi experiments, historically – prove non-replicable or methodologically flawed. Prof. Richard Wiseman, a psychologist from the University of Hertfordshire known for debunking psi claims, blogged that he’d already found a serious potential problem in the way the data was collected.

Daryl J Bem: “Feeling the Future: Experimental Evidence for Anomalous Retroactive Influences on Cognition and Affect”, available online as a pdf at: www.dbem.ws/FeelingFuture.pdf; www.hplusmagazine.com, 4 Nov; New Scientist, 11 Nov; Wired, 15 Nov; D.Telegraph, 18 Nov 2010.

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