Humans’ ability to possess psychic abilities has always been a topic of debate among psychologists. There are many who believe that some people are gifted with wonderful abilities that enable them to read other people’s minds, foresee the future, or have the intuition about actions taking place somewhere far away. Are these abilities real?
Can Scientific Research Prove Psychic Abilities?
Contrary to popular stereotypes, research shows that people who believe in psychic abilities are not necessarily uneducated or superstitious. In fact, belief in psychic phenomena is highest among more educated people. However, there are people who do not believe in such concepts. But believing or not believing in psychic ability, often termed as ‘psi’ by researchers, is not a matter of personal opinion. Whether people have such abilities or not, one ought to be able to demonstrate either case in controlled research studies. It may come as a surprise, but numerous scientific researches were carried out on these kinds of experiences. It was assumed that extrasensory perception or ESP could never be studied scientifically. However, as an approach for discovering phenomena and testing hypotheses, scientific methods can be applied to studying any topic if observable data can be collected. In fact, science is particularly beneficial in these kinds of controversial areas in providing data that can help to arbitrate the controversy.
Research on psychic phenomena began in the late 1800s. This was the time when ‘scientific psychology’ started out as a discipline. Interestingly, some of the people who helped to initiate psychology as a scientific field were interested in psychic phenomena. There were also other scientists at the time who thought that the topic of psychic experiences was inherently non-scientific. The central figure in the development of scientific research on psi was J. B. Rhine, who was recruited to Duke University in 1927 to conduct research in parapsychology, the field that studies anomalous psychic experiences, such as ESP.
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J.B. Rhine’s Research on Parapsychology
William McDougall, one of the leading psychologists of the time, thought that parapsychology should be investigated by scientific psychologists. This then led to the idea for a parapsychology laboratory. William McDougall’s and J. B. Rhine’s idea was to use the same scientific approaches used in other sciences, including controlled experiments, to test people for psychic abilities. Rhine used a special deck of cards, now known as ‘Zener Cards’, in which each card had one of five symbols on it—a square, a circle, a star, a plus sign, or three wavy lines. The research participant’s job was simply to guess which card would come up next in the deck. This deck had 25 cards, 5 cards of each design, so the probability that a person would randomly guess the cards correctly was 1 out of 5, or 20 percent. Therefore, if chance guessing was involved, the average person would guess 5 of the 25 cards, i.e. 20 percent, correctly. The question here was whether some people could predict more than 5 cards correctly?
Of course, people can get lucky and based on chance alone, they can sometimes guess 6, 7, or 8 cards, and occasionally even 15 or 20 cards, correctly. Participants who guess which of the 5 cards would come up next do not always get 5 out of 25 correctly based on guessing. They might get more or less than 5. In such a scenario, how does one determine whether a person’s correct answers are the result of random guessing or psychic ability?
Fortunately for Rhine, statisticians of his day had been working on ways to determine the probability of getting any number of guesses correct based on chance. For example, it’s not unusual to guess 6 cards correctly by chance. The probability of guessing 6 cards out of 25 Zener cards correctly is about 16 percent, which is not a big deal. But if someone guesses 10 cards correctly, that will be unusual. If a participant guesses 15 out of 25 Zener cards correctly, he or she is beating the odds as that will happen by chance only about once in a hundred thousand tries. Therefore, by using statistics, researchers could determine the probability of whether people were guessing or were they using psychic means to identify the cards.
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Criticism of J.B. Rhine’s Study
Rhine was aware that people would be sceptical of his findings and might suspect that his results were due to cheating or even fraud. Over time, he made his experiments more sophisticated and carefully controlled. He also moved from having people guess the next card in a deck of Zener Cards to guessing the roll of dice. Some of his results were even encouraging. Few of his studies showed that people could display psychic ability under controlled laboratory conditions.
However, it was heavily criticized by many scientists as well as non-scientists, who did not believe in Rhine’s methods and analyses. The methods used by Rhine to analyse his data were often criticized, but statisticians came to his defence, arguing that his analyses were valid. Some criticisms focused on the possibility that his experiments were not carefully controlled, and research participants could have guessed the correct cards or dice through normal sensory cues rather than ESP. However, none of these criticisms was particularly valid. Although not everyone believed the results of his studies, Rhine’s work led the way in showing that researchers could study the effects of ESP in carefully controlled studies.
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Common Questions about Research on Psychic Abilities or Parapsychology
Research shows that people who believe in psychic abilities are not necessarily uneducated or superstitious. In fact, belief in psychic phenomena is highest among more educated people.
The central figure in the development of scientific research on psi was J. B. Rhine, who was recruited to Duke University in 1927 to conduct research in parapsychology.
J.B. Rhine used a special deck of cards, now known as Zener Cards, in which each card had one of five symbols on it—a square, a circle, a star, a plus sign, or three wavy lines.