Self-Motivation
David Goggins
Former Navy Seal
Career Development
Bryan Cranston
Actor
Critical Thinking
Liv Boeree
International Poker Champion
Emotional Intelligence
Amaryllis Fox
Former CIA Clandestine Operative
Management
Chris Hadfield
Retired Canadian Astronaut & Author
Learn
from the world's big
thinkers
Start Learning

New study reveals the science behind Ouija boards

It's not demons. It's not the undead. The explanation is actually way more boring that you'll ever guess.

Wikimedia Commons

Ouija boards. You either love 'em or hate 'em... or you're one of the undead and someone with one keeps calling you back up to chat, sort of like the paranormal equivalent of butt-dialing. Either way, it's been immensely popular since its invention by Elijah Bond in 1890 thanks to its supposed ability to "talk to the dead". Over a century later it's become quite the pop culture staple. Untold thousands of spooked-out kids have toyed with it at sleepovers—and dozens of supposed demonic possessions have allegedly (key word: allegedly!) occurred because of it.


But it turns out there's a far more pedantic explanation of why Ouija boards work. And it's a lot more boring than talking to dead people. Thanks to a landmark Danish study—available here—from the Interactive Minds Centre at Aarhus University, researchers have figured out what makes ouija boards actually work, all because they used what other studies haven't: eye-tracking devices and huge amounts of data analysis.

Note the camera overlooking the table, and the 2 pairs of camera-glasses. Picture of the study, c/o Aarhus University. 

40 people were asked to participate in the study and play 2 consecutive "games" on the Ouija board. All wore eye-tracking devices for both games: during the first game they were asked separately to spell the word 'Baltimore', and in the second they were asked to play as usual (i.e. without a set phrase in mind to spell). 

When the first experiment called for spelling the word 'Baltimore', the eyes of the people in the study flitted to the next letter based on familiarity with the alphabet (and their ability to spell the word). But when asked to conduct a session as usual, their tracked eyes showed that the word they eventually spelled was a combination of the efforts of the two parties. Basically: you're averaging out an answer with whomever you're "playing" with. And the supernatural part? That's just you being unsure of the next letter — 21.6% more unsure, to be exact, according to the study — and the more likely you are to believe the board is possessed, the more control you assign yourself to lose (and thus be more swayed by the person on the other side of the board). 

Your mind already (hopefully) knows the alphabet, and is making subconscious movements towards certain letters just from looking at the board. In short: if you want the Ouija's answer to be "banana" really bad, unless the person you're playing with is a total alpha personality, you'll probably end up with "banana" as your answer. 

c/o Aarhus University

One of the most interesting takeaways from the study lies in the implementation of the study itself: it took a really, really long time to read all those eye movements. 

...coders were instructed that focal gaze had to fall on the exact letter that the planchette would subsequently reach. Any amount of time looking on the exact letter would qualify as a prediction. On average, it took around one and a half hours for the coders to annotate 1 min of video. The coders manually annotated 3–4 h of video in total.

That's about 315 hours of looking at eye movements. 

tl;dr? The Ouija board works because of the ideomotor phenomenon, and the study proved that using eye-capture devices and a ton of time analyzing the data. 

 


LIVE ON MONDAY | "Lights, camera, activism!" with Judith Light

Join multiple Tony and Emmy Award-winning actress Judith Light live on Big Think at 2 pm ET on Monday.

Big Think LIVE

Add event to calendar

AppleGoogleOffice 365OutlookOutlook.comYahoo

Keep reading Show less

Scientists see 'rarest event ever recorded' in search for dark matter

The team caught a glimpse of a process that takes 18,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years.

Image source: Pixabay
Surprising Science
  • In Italy, a team of scientists is using a highly sophisticated detector to hunt for dark matter.
  • The team observed an ultra-rare particle interaction that reveals the half-life of a xenon-124 atom to be 18 sextillion years.
  • The half-life of a process is how long it takes for half of the radioactive nuclei present in a sample to decay.
Keep reading Show less

Space travel could create language unintelligible to people on Earth

A new study looks at what would happen to human language on a long journey to other star systems.

Cylindrical space colony.

Credit: NASA Ames Research Center.
Surprising Science
  • A new study proposes that language could change dramatically on long space voyages.
  • Spacefaring people might lose the ability to understand the people of Earth.
  • This scenario is of particular concern for potential "generation ships".
Keep reading Show less

Your emotions are the new hot commodity — and there’s an app for that

Many of the most popular apps are about self-improvement.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Personal Growth

Emotions are the newest hot commodity, and we can't get enough.

Keep reading Show less
Scroll down to load more…
Quantcast