Feeling the Future: Is Precognition Possible?
By Jonah Lehrer / Wired
Most science papers don’t begin with a description of psi, those “anomalous processes of information or energy transfer” that have no material explanation. (Popular examples of psi include telepathy, clairvoyance and psychokinesis.) It’s even less common for a serious science paper, published in an elite journal, to show that psi is a real phenomenon.
But that’s exactly what Daryl Bem of Cornell University has demonstrated in his new paper, “Feeling the Future: Experimental Evidence for Anomalous Retroactive Influences on Cognition and Affect,” which was just published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Bem’s experimental method was extremely straightforward. He took established psychological protocols, such as affective priming and recall facilitation, and reversed the sequence, so that the cause became the effect. For instance, he might show students a long list of words and ask them to remember as many as possible. Then, the students are told to type a selection of words which had been randomly selected from the same list. Here’s where things get really weird: the students were significantly better at recalling words that they would later type.
Or consider this experiment, which is a direct test of precognition. Bems provided the following instructions to subjects:
The location of the image was selected at random by the computer, which means that students should have correctly guessed the location of the pornography 50 percent of the time. However, it turned out that over 100 sessions, the subjects consistently performed above chance, and correctly located the porn 53.1 percent of the time. Interestingly, their hit rate on “non-erotic pictures” did not deviate from chance. (They found neutral pictures, for instance, 49.8 percent of the time.)
The power of Bem’s paper is cumulative. In total, he describes the results of nine different experiments, conducted on more than 1000 subjects. All of the experiments revealed slight yet statistically significant psi anomalies, with an average effect size of 0.21 across all experiments.
However, the real contribution of this paper isn’t even these statistically significant results. Instead, it’s Bem’s attempt to create rigorous, well-controlled tests of psi that can be replicated by independent investigators. Because here is the dirty secret of anomalous phenomena like telepathy and clairvoyance: They’ve been demonstrated dozens of times, often by reputable scientists. (Bem is an extremely well-respected psychologist, best known for his work on self-perception.) Why, then, do serious scientists dismiss the possibility of psi? Why do rational people assume that parapsychology is bullshit? Because these exciting results have consistently failed the test of replication.
And this is why Bem’s paper is so important: It provides the first testable framework for the investigation of anomalous psychological properties. Unlike most tests of psi or ESP, Bem’s research builds upon well-known experimental paradigms, and minimizes the contact between the experimenter and the subject. The data collection was automated and accurate; the paper passed peer-review. (Charles Judd, who oversaw the review process at JPSP, said: “This paper went through a series of reviews from some of our most trusted reviewers.”) Only time will tell if the data holds up. But at least time will tell us something. Bem ends the paper with a reference to Lewis Carroll:
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