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The Science of Psychics

A sizable chunk of America believes in ESP—despite the only evidence behind it being one truly bizarre study.
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There is this deeply affecting part in the movie version of A Christmas Carol—OK fine, A Muppet Christmas Carol—where Ebenezer Scrooge is carried forward some unspecified number of years through time and set down on the front doorstep of a future Bob Cratchit. The silent, hooded Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come stands behind him, urging him forward with a long and scary finger, watching eyeless-ly as Scrooge reluctantly dissolves through the family’s front door. Inside their home, Scrooge will learn that Tiny Tim has died. Then, taken along again, either forward or sideways in time, Scrooge will find himself standing in front of his own grave. So he turns back to face the Ghost and he begs.

“Are these the shadows of things that will be, or are they the shadows of things that may be, only?” he asks. Then he pretends to himself that he has made up his mind. “A life can be made right,” he argues with himself—trying to negotiate his own fate—in front of a faceless Ghost who doesn’t say a word.

Is everything already laid out ahead of us or is there a way to avoid the worst things, or at least push them off until a very long time from now? Can we (or anyone else) know ahead of time what will happen, and would it affect what we do in the present if we did? How many Christmases do I have left? These are heavy, impossible questions for the average 10-year-old viewer—or even a 26-year-old one.

A 2005 Gallup poll found that 26 percent of Americans answered “yes” to believing in “the power of the mind to know the past and predict the future.”

TODAY, THE WORD “PSYCHIC” conjures up neon-lit signs in suburban home windows, infomercials starring the not-really-Jamaican-after-all Miss Cleo, and the infamous TV show Crossing Over With John Edward. Culturally, psychics just don’t carry the kind of prestige they did in, say, the Oracle of Delphi’s era. (Sixteenth-century French seer Nostradamus has something of a fan page, but it looks … well, I guess it probably looks exactly like you’d expect.)

Still, there’s a sizable portion of the country who will admit, at least in a private, one-on-one conversation over the phone, that they believe in psychic ability in some capacity: A 2005 Gallup poll found that 26 percent of Americans answered “yes” to believing in “the power of the mind to know the past and predict the future,” and a 2009 CBS News poll found that 57 percent of Americans reported believing in non-specific ESP, or extrasensory perception.

But I think it’s probably higher. I’m skeptical of the skeptics. How many more of them would go to a fortune telling “as a joke” and hold the predictions in the backs of their minds, at least as an outline, to consider what potential life paths to avoid? I say I don’t believe in psychics, not really. But I won’t go see one because if I do, she’ll tell me something bad is going to happen to me someday, and I will never, ever forget it. (It’s the same story with ghosts. So many people insist they do not and would not ever believe, but how many of them would run screaming if you blew open their windows at night and piped faint, spooky children’s laughter into their bedrooms?) To say one is able to see the future is an extraordinarily intriguing claim for a species obsessed with its own mortality. Of course we have to know if that’s possible. But how?

Scientific testing for psychic ability seems a fundamentally unsound task, in logical terms; you can pay attention to what someone says about the future and see if he’s eventually right, but how will you ever know he knew?

ONE OF THE MOST (in)famous academic studies on psi phenomena—and there are more than you’d think—was conducted two years ago, by respected social psychologist and Cornell University professor Daryl J. Bem. Bem claimed his research—titled “Feeling the Future: Experimental Evidence for Anomalous Retroactive Influences on Cognition and Affect” and published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology—offered support for the existence of psi via nine separate experiments, eight of which were said to yield statistically significant results.

Among those eight, one sticks out: 100 Cornell undergraduates (50 men and 50 women) were sat down in front of a computer and were told they were about to be tested for ESP. After a few questions, they were told, pictures of two curtains would appear on their screens, but only one of them would have an image behind it. Participants were to click on the curtain they sensed had the picture behind it. Before they started, the students were also warned that a number of the pictures would be “explicitly erotic.”

As they waited for the experiment to start, students had a three-minute relaxation period in which they watched “a slowly moving Hubble photograph of the sky.” After that, it was pretty much all hardcore pornography. You have to hope they tested one person at a time, or that the students had their own rooms—it’s too disconcerting to imagine all this being done en masse. (I’m not sure whether these weird little details make me strangely fond of or uncomfortably creeped out by the 74-year-old Bem. It’s probably both.)

In truth, the students were not being tested for their ability to “see” what was already there, but what would appear there in the future. Students entered a guess as to which curtain the picture was behind, but the space behind both curtains was actually initially empty. After the computer recorded the guesses, a randomized process chose and placed a picture behind one of the curtains (also chosen randomly) seconds later. The picture was revealed to the students, who were then given a few moments to “recover” before the next trial. Each student viewed 36 pictures total. By Bem’s logic, this methodology allowed him to look back on students’ guesses and see whether they matched what had eventually come to pass at a rate higher than chance. Bem found that students correctly identified the future positions of the erotic pictures at a rate significantly (in statistical terms, though maybe not common-sense ones) higher than chance—53.1 percent. Perhaps some of us really can tell when we’re about to see something sexy. There are less-useful superpowers.

Unsurprisingly, Bem’s study—and his concluding claims that he had found statistically significant support for psi phenomena—was met with substantial resistance and criticism. His methods sparked a debate on the merits of “statistical significance” in social science research, and there were questions about the completeness of his methodology. Then there are the theoretical quandaries, like whether it really counts as “predicting the future” when the outcome is merely a randomized picture that could just as easily have been something else. It might be technically accurate, but it’s not an especially romantic understanding of what it might mean if there were people among us who knew what will happen to you and me. (Bem’s picture collection notwithstanding.)

But it’s hard not to pull for a guy like Bem, or maybe a fan of his, and hope that someone nails down some proof of psi phenomena eventually. What we’d do with that information—whether it’d make us better and purer, like Scrooge, or worse, cowering hermits instead—is another question. It would still be nice to know if we could know. And, if for no other reason, I can’t imagine there’s another research topic about which it could be more satisfying to be able to say, “I told you so.”