Have you ever been thinking about someone and then moments later they’ve called you? Is that random coincidence or something more?
People love to believe in supernatural powers like telepathy. At least one-third of Americans report a belief in extra-sensory perception (ESP), with a further 40% refusing to rule out the possibility. Surveys in Europe reveal similar figures with one study finding that almost two-thirds of people believe in some form of ESP (further figures on the NSF website).
Psychologists are particularly interested in why people have these sorts of beliefs. One common explanation is that people’s natural desire to make sense of what is a fundamentally random and confusing world is so strong that patterns are seen where there are none. It’s like when we look at a visual illusion or watch a good magician: we’re easily tricked.
So what kinds of situations make us more prone to this magical thinking? This is the question that inspired Fred Ayeroff and Robert P. Abelson to carry out a classic social psychology experiment on a group of students at Yale University in the 1970s (Ayeroff & Abelson, 1976). They wanted to see if a simple experimental manipulation could be used to get people to act as though they believed in telepathy.
For their experiment they used 32 participants and a fairly standard set-up for a parapsychological ESP study. One participant, the sender, was sent to a soundproof room and told to transmit a series of images telepathically. The other participant, the receiver, was sent to another soundproof room and told to get ready to receive (this was the 70s remember!).
There were two experimental manipulations:
- Good vibe. Some receivers and senders were sat down before the telepathy started to ‘practice’ together. This was designed to get a ‘good vibe’ going between sender and receiver.
- Control. Some senders and receivers were allowed to choose which, from a set of cards, they actually used to transmit telepathically.
Then, once the experiment got under way, both sender and receiver were asked to say how confident they were that they had successfully transmitted (or received) each card. Participants weren’t told how they had done…
Full story in Psyblog