How a controversial study on psychic powers caused a revolution in psychology research.
Paul Ratner06 December, 2020
A 2011 study by psychologist Dr. Daryl Bem seemed to prove that ESP and other psychic phenomena may be real.The study caused tremendous controversy and catalyzed a re-examination of psychology research methods.Bem’s paper had many critics but its results were replicated in some later studies.
Among the scientific studies that came out in the past decade, perhaps none were more controversial than the 2011 paper by the American psychologist Dr. Daryl Bem. He proved an explosive notion, that precognition, the ability to see future events, is actually real, setting off a period of soul-searching among psychologists that still persists to this day. How could an eminent Cornell University professor come to such a conclusion, which is so squarely outside mainstream science and props up parapsychology? Could his experiments, which seemed to follow accepted procedures and sound methods in coming up with this unexpected proof, be replicated?
The paper, “Feeling the Future: Experimental Evidence for Anomalous Retroactive Influences on Cognition and Affect,” reported on nine experiments involving over 1,000 participants, with eight of them successfully showing that a person’s responses could be influenced by stimulating events that happened after the responses were already made and recorded.
This possibility strongly supported the notion of precognition, where individuals seem to gain information or energy transfer that no physical or biological process we know of says they should have. Such phenomena, which also include telepathy and clairvoyance or remote viewing, are collectively known as “psi”.
The experiments that seemed to prove Bem’s thesis ranged in their approach. Some of the stimuli used were erotic in nature, with an early experiment consisting of having research subjects (Cornell undergrads) looking at a pair of curtains on a computer. They were supposed to guess which one had a hidden pornographic image, with the correct answer being randomly chosen after the student made their decision. Interestingly, students performed slightly better than simple guessing would have produced, with 53 percent choosing the correct location of the image.
Another experiment had students examining sets of words that they would then have to type out. Somehow, the students did better at first remembering words they would type out later. It’s as if having the second opportunity to practice and remember words had benefits that went backwards in time.
Cognitive neuroscience professor Chris Chambers, one of Bem’s critics (and there were many), called the conclusion of the paper “ridiculous.” And yet, “this is really interesting because if a paper like this that’s doing everything normally and properly can end up producing a ridiculous conclusion, then how many other papers that use those exact same methods that didn’t reach ridiculous conclusions are similarly flawed?” Chambers wondered in an interview.
What Could ESP Mean?
Bem said that he chose to conduct experiments that were easy enough to be replicated by others. In a 2010 press release by Cornell, he pointed out that “I designed the experiments to be persuasive, simple and transparent enough to encourage them to try replicating these experiments for themselves.”
He offered free packages with detailed instruction manuals on how to conduct such experiments, along with the requisite computer software for running the sessions and analyzing the data. He knew this work would face extreme scrutiny and encouraged other psychologists to get these results on their own. And that’s exactly what they tried to do.
A 2010 study carried out by the University of California–Berkeley business school professor Leif Nelson and Carnegie Mellon’s professor Jeff Galak used an online version of Bem’s word-recall experiment and failed to come up with the same outcome from a sample group of over 100 people. Bem’s argument against this approach was that trying to establish ESP online was not going to work.
Other studies, like the 2011 paper led by Eric-Jan Wagenmakers, a research methodologist at the University of Amsterdam, also couldn’t replicate Bem’s finds and took issue with the statistical analyses he employed, saying the psychologist overstated his evidence.
But there were studies that seemed to have replicated what Bem found. In fact, Bem’s team published a meta-analysis in 2015 of 90 experiments from 33 different labs in 14 countries, which involved 12,406 participants. Analyzing the results, Bem demonstrated statistical support across all the studies for his conclusions on the existence of ESP, writing that there is “decisive evidence.”
Of course, the decisiveness of this evidence is still in the eye of the beholder. In fact, psychologist Jonathan Schooler from the University of California–Santa Barbara, who was one of the original peer reviewers for Bem’s work, supports the notion that the bias and even the psychic abilities of the experimenter may have a lot to do with the possible success of psi studies.
“If it’s possible that consciousness influences reality and is sensitive to reality in ways that we don’t currently understand, then this might be part of the scientific process itself,” said Schooler. “Parapsychological factors may play out in the science of doing this research.”
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In an interview with Slate, Bem acknowledged the firestorm of reactions his research has caused. “The critics said that I put psychologists in an uncomfortable position and that they’d have to revise their views of the physical world or their views on research practice,” he shared. “I think both are true. I still believe in psi, but I also think that methods in the field need to be cleaned up.”
Indeed, the publication of Bem’s paper prompted a call to replicate not just his study but psychology studies in general. After all, if an outlandish result is achieved, it’s worth verifying if it can be repeated. Otherwise, the study could have errors and its result could simply be a fluke rather than any scientific discovery. A group of 270 scientists from 17 countries attempted replicating 100 studies from the year 2008, found in peer-reviewed psychology journals with solid reputations.
Their goal was to repeat all 100 experiments exactly as carried out by the original scientists. Unfortunately, and quite strikingly, only 36 percent of the replications managed to get the same results as the initial studies. To put it another way, 64 percent of the studies analyzed were potentially wrong, or at the very least misleadingly or insufficiently presented.
If so many studies could not be replicated, what did that mean for the whole field of psychology? New standards for psychology research were implemented. Researchers now commonly use the process of “pre-registration,” whereby they write up how they would conduct the study and what their hypotheses might be, before they carry out the experiments. This limits their ability to manipulate data and report positive results before they are found.
Additionally, hundreds of scientific journals now publish “registered” reports that explain whether they would accept or reject submitted studies before they are undertaken. This makes the decision to publish papers focus on their methodology more than some sensational results.
As far as parapsychology and Bem’s research, it is clear that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof and it’s safe to say the disputed nature of the studies that seemed to support ESP and similar phenomena have not made a real dent on the consensus scientific opinions. More reproducible work with much wider samples and unchallengeable statistical approaches must be done for such dramatic claims as precognition (which would break the second law of thermodynamics among other things in our accepted reality) to be taken more seriously.