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Ouija boards, demons, the dead and human psychology

When the ideometer effect occurs during a Ouija-board séance, it can be very convincing, even spine-chillingly so (to those unfamiliar with the science behind it).

ouija board
Behold: the “strange and mysterious” Ouija board.

On its website this week — just in time for Halloween — the Smithsonian posted a fascinating article on the “strange and mysterious” Ouija board.

In the article, freelance journalist Linda Rodriguez McRobbie traces the sometimes bizarre history of this 120-year-old “talking board” — how it evolved from the 19th-century obsession with spiritualism (the belief that the dead could communicate with the living), how its popularity increased during periods of fear and uncertainty (the 1930s and 1960s, for example — and, yes, today), and how the 1973 movie “The Exorcist,” which featured a Ouija board, led religious groups to denounce the game (it is, after all, sold by a toy company) as “Satan’s preferred method of communication.”

For decades, writes McRobbie, spiritualism was generally considered “compatible with Christian dogma, meaning one could hold a séance on Saturday night and have no qualms about going to church the next day.”

But after “The Exorcist, Ouija boards became viewed by conservative religious leaders as dangerous unleashers of demons. As recently as 2001, boards were being tossed on bonfires along with copies of Harry Potter books and Snow White videos. (Although, apparently, some people believe that burning a Ouija board will cause its owner to become possessed by demons.)

The psychology behind the boards

All that history is intriguing, of course, but McRobbie also devotes a significant part of her article to the psychology of Ouija boards, specifically how they work and what they tell us about the subconscious mind.

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Psychologists have actually used the game to gain insight into how the mind processes different levels of information.

In terms of how the boards work, well, that phenomenon was identified by scientists 160 years ago, and it has nothing to do with demons or the dead. It’s called the ideometer effect — the automatic movement of muscles that takes place without the individual being consciously aware of it. The ideometer effect explains, for example why we cry in response to a sad scene in a movie or why we pull our hand away from a hot stove.

When the effect occurs during a Ouija-board séance, it can be very convincing, even spine-chillingly so (to those unfamiliar with the science behind it). Writes McRobbie:

As Dr. Chris French, professor of psychology and anomalistic psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London, explains, “It can generate a very strong impression that the movement is being caused by some outside agency, but it’s not.” Other devices, such as dowsing rods, or more recently, the fake bomb detection kits that deceived scores of international governments and armed services, work on the same principal of non-conscious movement.

“The thing about all these mechanisms we’re talking about, dowsing rods, Ouija boards, pendulums, these small tables, they’re all devices whereby quite a small muscular movement can cause quite a large effect,” he says. Planchettes [the usually heart-shaped devices that are slid over Ouija boards to spell out answers], in particular, are well-suited for their task — many used to be constructed of a lightweight wooden board and fitted with small casters to help them move more smoothly and freely; now, they’re usually plastic and have felt feet, which also help it slide over the board easily.

“And with Ouija boards you’ve got the whole social context. It’s usually a group of people, and everyone has a slight influence,” French notes. With Ouija, not only does the individual give up some conscious control to participate — so it can’t be me, people think — but also, in a group, no one person can take credit for the planchette’s movements, making it seem like the answers must be coming from an otherworldly source. Moreover, in most situations, there is an expectation or suggestion that the board is somehow mystical or magical.

Nonconscious knowledge

So, Ouija boards have absolutely nothing to tell us about the dead, but they can reveal some somewhat startling information about the living. Writes McRobbie:

Two years ago, Dr. Ron Rensink, professor of psychology and computer science, psychology postdoctoral researcher Hélène Gauchou, and Dr. Sidney Fels, professor of electrical and computer engineering, began looking at exactly what happens when people sit down to use a Ouija board. …

Their initial experiments involved a Ouija-playing robot: Participants were told that they were playing with a person in another room via teleconferencing; the robot, they were told, mimicked the movements of the other person. In actuality, the robot’s movements simply amplified the participants’ motions and the person in the other room was just a ruse, a way to get the participant to think they weren’t in control. Participants were asked a series of yes or no, fact-based questions (“Is Buenos Aires the capital of Brazil? Were the 2000 Olympic Games held in Sydney?”) and expected to use the Ouija board to answer.

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What the team found surprised them: When participants were asked, verbally, to guess the answers to the best of their ability, they were right only around 50 percent of the time, a typical result for guessing. But when they answered using the board, believing that the answers were coming from someplace else, they answered correctly upwards of 65 percent of the time.

“It was so dramatic how much better they did on these questions than if they answered to the best of their ability that we were like, ‘This is just weird, how could they be that much better?’” recalled Fels. “It was so dramatic we couldn’t believe it.” The implication was, Fels explained, that one’s non-conscious was a lot smarter than anyone knew.

Now, that’s something spooky to contemplate this All Hallow’s Eve.

You can read McRobbie’s article on the Smithsonian website.