Monthly Archives: April 2010

Baloney Detection 101 — The Ideomotor Effect

Ouija boardsautomatic writing…table tipping in spiritualist seancesdowsing in all its forms, including bogus bomb detectors…the Clever Hans phenomenonapplied kinesiology…New Age psychotherapy techniques that purport to query the unconscious…what do all of these things have in common?

They are all in some form or other the results of a well-understood and empirically well-established psycho-muscular phenomenon known as the Ideomotor effect.

Known mostly to psychologists, it is a phenomenon which has been repeatedly confirmed since the days of William B. Carpenter in 1852, who called it ‘Ideomotor action’ after his investigations into dowsing, and to paraphrase Dr. Ray Hyman, who after he tested this phenomenon has said that “honest and intelligent people can (and do…) unconsciously engage in muscular activity that is consistent with their expectations.”

It is a mechanism in which mental suggestiveness can produce results of unconscious or involuntary actions that may be erroneously viewed as paranormal or supernatural by those unaware of it, both body and mind influenced by the power of subtle, unconscious suggestion. The nature of the movement caused by the effect is the result of a mild dissociative state, in which the user’s conscious awareness of the motion he is performing is suspended, producing the illusion of motion seemingly caused by mysterious forces external to himself, often considered to be paranatural or otherwise mysterious in origin.

Such notables as psychologist William James, chemist Michel Chevereul, and physicist Michael Faraday have tested this phenomenon and successfully shown that many seemingly inexplicable effects or forces can be more parsimoniously explained as resulting from Ideomotor activity, such as moving a ouija board’s planchette, the rod or pendulum of a dowser, diviner or alchemist, the hands of a practitioner of Facilitated Communication, as well as some behaviors often attributed to hypnotic suggestion.

The Ideomotor effect, though most people, even quite a few scientists, are unaware of it, is a well-documented phenomenon and includes the following features:

  • It amplifies the motion of a pendulum or other hand-held object, such as a divining rod in ways that the operator doesn’t consciously notice, and then…
  • …The operator, completely unaware of his own agency in the motion, ascribes it to something ‘outside’ or ‘other’ than himself…
  • …This ‘something outside’ is then thought to be some sort of paranormal, occult, or unknown scientific force, typically some sort of spiritual agency or ‘energy field’ in the operator’s vicinity…
  • …Which then produces a powerful feeling, quickly snowballing into a full-fledged delusion, that the operator possesses some sort of unusual or special ability, power over, or sensitivity to unusual forces or influences…
  • …And when thus used in attempts at divination this effect reveals no knowledge to the operator that he or she didn’t already possess, though the operator may not be aware that they know what they do on a conscious level. This is especially true when the effect is used in ‘water witching’ when the operator has unconscious knowledge of what local geological characteristics are likely to be in an area where underground water sources are to be found, and even if not, in most cases there is a fair likelihood of finding water by chance anyway.

In any case, success in this by the operator reinforces belief, failure is downplayed and forgotten, which causes…

  • …the psychological reinforcement resulting from the dissociation of bodily motion and conscious awareness of it to magnify the delusional effect, setting in motion cognitive mechanisms that prevent the operator’s belief in the effect from being falsified…

…and as a result, many operators become firmly convinced of their own powers, even despite evidence to the contrary, such as a careful and patient explanation with a demonstration of the scientific understanding behind this effect.

SGU does the Monster Mash

via Phil Plait – Monster Sunspots!

This is a short one, but cool…

TNQ | Troythulu’s Noontide Query

I try to avoid being too loud about my politics, and on this blog, I generally try to shy away from making much in the way of overt political statements — mostly.

Nonetheless, I do have political views, and I’ve noticed that most people aren’t very objective about their views regarding this, including, I suspect, Troythulu.

Politics is like sports — we pick a team, or party, that we really like and root for them. When they win the competition, we feel great, when they lose, we feel angry.

For some, politics is everything, and while it can lead to a crass expounding upon of said views, putting a political spin on things can also reveal interesting insights.

So this day I ask:

Is being part of a political cause one way in which you personally find meaning in life?
How good a source of meaning is that compared to other sources?

TNQ is a daily question that I pose to you, my readers, and please, do feel free to comment — I’m not an ogre. As per the title, TNQ is published each weekday at 12:00 PM

TNQ | Troythulu’s Noontide Query

One of the things important to me as a skeptic is to add to and arrange my mental toolkit to allow me to be as sure as I humanly can about the real world, to permit myself to know certain facts about reality as certainly as can be known given my cognitive and perceptual limits as a member of species Homo sapiens, even then conceding that I cannot know anything absolutely.

I try to keep what I subjectively would like to be from overcoming my understanding of what is, while still acknowledging that my subjectivity is my window to the world as I see it.

Perfect objectivity is not possible, even for the most healthy skeptic, but objectivity is still a worthy goal nonetheless.

I concede to a reality which like it or not, has elements of both the objective and the subjective, a reality in which what is determines what we can know, and in which what we can know defines the limits of our understanding of what is.

The objective and subjective, the existence of the world, and the lens of self through which we see it are both important to me.

So this day, I’ll ask you all:

Which has priority to you, objectivity or subjectivity?

TNQ is a daily question that I pose to you, my readers, and please, do feel free to comment — I’m not an ogre. As per the title, TNQ is published each weekday at 12:00 PM


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