Real effects far more interesting than spiritualism claims are behind these famous talking boards.
by Brian Dunning
October 3, 2017
Some say they are tools by which demons can influence us; others regard them as mechanisms for communicating with the deceased; still others dismiss them as toys that can be used to fool your friends. But however we regard them, Ouija boards have left an indelible mark on our culture. But of most interest is the question they raise: Can they indeed be used to reveal information unknown to any of the participants whose hands rest on the pointer? Today we're going to find out what the science has revealed about Ouija boards.
Historically, these are called talking boards, and they've been around in spiritualism almost as long as spiritualists. They all involve a planchette, which is the pointer that seance participants all place their hands on, which then moves. How does it move? Well, that's the fun if it's a game, and it's the spirit if it's a seance. The planchette can either point to letters, numbers, or symbols written on the playing surface; or it can hold a writing implement that moves over paper to produce so-called spirit writing, or automatic writing.
The Ouija board is the name of the most successful talking board that's been manufactured commercially, first by the Charles Kennard Novelty Company in 1890, then by Parker Brothers since 1966, and by Hasbro since 1991.
It's true that name Ouija is the French and German words for yes, oui and ja. That's officially what the game's publisher will tell you it means, and that comes all the way down from one of the original bosses of the company, William Fuld. But Fuld wasn't the first, and before he came along, the founders had their own explanation for the name.
The story goes — and it is just a story, there's really no record telling us how much truth there may or may not be to it — that two of the four founders, Charles Kennard and Elijah Bond, were hanging out at the boarding house where Bond's sister-in-law lived, Helen Peters, and they were, of course, playing with their new invention. Peters considered herself something of a medium, and she asked the board what it wanted to be called. The three lay their hands on the planchette and watched in the candlelight as it slowly began to move. It went from the O, to the U, to the I... and spelled out the word Ouija. Peters gasped and opened a locket she kept round her neck, and showed it to the two men; it was a picture of a young woman, with the name Ouija written above her head! The only explanation — they reasoned — is that the spirits must have known what was in the locket. (For now, we'll forgo the more cynical explanation that Peters thought she'd have a little fun with the two men.)
Kennard wrote this story down, but probably made a mistake in the spelling. Helen Peters was a big fan of the British feminist author Ouida (with a D instead of a J), the pseudonym of Maria Louise Ramé, and that's almost certainly what it said in her locket, and probably also what Peters spelled out for them with the planchette. They then asked the board to tell them what the name meant, and it said good luck. Later when Fuld was running things, he added that it was an "ancient Egyptian" word for good luck. (It's totally not, in case you were wondering.)
The pronunciation? The original game instructions say "pronounced wee-gee or wee-ja" and today Hasbro goes with wee-gee. Here's from the retro-sounding trailer for the 2014 movie called Ouija:
Introducing Hasbro's Ouija.
"Is that the one where you talk to ghosts?"
"It's actually pretty fun."
"Is there a spirit here?"
The movie played on the theme that evil spirits can use the game to cause trouble for the living. This has been a real thing, particularly in the 1920s, when some murderers claimed they'd been told to commit their crime by some spirit through the Ouija board, and other amateurs were trying to give evidence to police they'd divined through their boards. Although this kind of thing had colored Ouija board culture to some degree ever since it came out, it was the board's inclusion as a key plot point in the 1973 movie The Exorcist that really put it onto the threat board of modern evangelicals. In fact, when the 2014 film came out, here is what evangelical leader Pat Robertson had to say:
The idea is that you're dealing with a spirit, and the spirit is causing that little — whatever they call that thing — it goes around to letters and spells out words, and so you feel like it's some dead person. But actually it is communicating with demonic spirits. It is a dangerous thing, and I would strongly urge people not to get involved in it.
Well, really, 99.9% of the time, the planchette moves because one of your friends is a knucklehead and is the one moving it, just as Helen Peters probably did. But let's discount all of those instances and see what Ouija boards can do when deliberate intervention by the participants is not part of the picture — it turns out they can, and do, actually work.
The default skeptical explanation for Ouija boards, as you may already know, is called the ideomotor response, referring to muscle movements driven by ideas, and discussed in detail in episode 451. It's unconscious and unintentional. It's also the standard explanation for dowsing. When we learn about the ideomotor response, it can seem like it's a bit of a cynical explanation. Surely an intelligent person, making a serious and honest attempt to control their body's movements, would not consistently make large and decisive movements that convey intelligible data. Let's look at one study that attempted to quantify the ideomotor response's effect on Ouija boards.
It comes from one of the more interesting studies often cited in Oujia board discussions. It's a recent one, published in 2012 in the journal Consciousness and Cognition. They gave subjects a big list of general knowledge questions that are all Yes/No answers; two examples being "Is Buenos Aires the capital of Brazil?" and "Were the 2000 Summer Olympics held in Sydney?" Subjects went through the list on a computer and clicked yes or no, and also indicated whether they knew the answer (high confidence) or had no clue and had to guess (low confidence).
They then proceeded to the next phase, where they sat at a Ouija board with a second person, who, unbeknownst to the test subject, was a confederate of the researchers. Both of them placed their hands on the planchette and were then blindfolded. Without the subject realizing it, the confederate then took her hands off of the planchette, so any movement would be caused by the subject alone. The subject was then given a new set of questions, half of which were repeats from the previous set. For each question they were instructed to wait for the planchette to move, then follow its movement without directing it. And, most of the time, soon the planchette would move, eventually settling on or near either yes or no.
Finally they did a third test which was a repeat of the first round at the computer, again with half new questions and half recycled questions.
There are two things I want to discuss about the results that are relevant to our conversation here today. First is that the actual test results they got have been used by promoters of spiritualism as evidence that Ouija boards truly are giving us knowledge from beyond, and the reason is that the data analysis did show a marked improvement of accuracy in the guessed answers when they were using the Ouija board compared to when the person used the computer. You'd think it should have been 50/50, right? Random chance for the guessed answers? But it wasn't. When the subject had to guess, they were 50/50 at the computer; but at the Ouija board, they were 65% right and only 35% wrong.
Proof of the afterlife?
No. In fact, really this is just proof that this test was really small and subject to random noise, and has not been replicated so far as I could find. Only 19 test subjects gave answers. The researchers also suggested that since some of the questions were repeats, their brains had time to go back and remember and maybe come up with some answers they'd forgotten the first time around. They called this the presentation effect, but they dismissed it based on data analysis, which I found totally uncompelling because of the small data set. So I'd call their test results mildly interesting, but not surprising because of the presentation effect, and also too small to be given much weight either way.
The second thing I want to discuss about the results is that they got results at all! These subjects who were in sole control of the planchette, all moved it to either yes or no. (A few other students did participate but didn't get any results, so those are excluded from the 19 discussed.) In case you supposed that the ideomotor response might produce slight random movements but not larger decisive movements, this proved it can. The subjects knew where yes and no were, and moved the planchette all the way across the board to them. From the paper:
All participants reported that they were only following the movement — they never induced it. When told that they were the only player moving the planchette during the Ouija session, all exhibited some degree of surprise. Indeed, several reported that they suspected the other participant to be a confederate because the planchette was moving too well, and they assumed that her role was to move it intentionally.
These people were powerfully fooled by their own bodies' ideomotor responses. It's no wonder that water diviners tend to believe their ability is real based on the repeatable certainty of their dowsing rods' movements.
Another reason this study can hardly be considered good proof that spirits intervene with Ouija boards is that the subjects all knew where yes and no were on the board, and as long as the answer given landed in the ballpark, researchers marked it down. Really it was just left and right. If spirits were guiding the planchette, they should be able to move it to specific letters on the alphabet, even with subjects blindfolded, and spell out sentences and other non-ambiguous intelligences. Clearly, nothing remotely like that happened here.
So far, no good research has been published showing the Ouija board to have any remarkable or reproducible abilities, other than to demonstrate the ideomotor response — but that, in itself, is surprisingly impressive, as demonstrated by the reactions of the test subjects who had been certain that the nonexistent second player was actually manipulating the planchette. There seems to be scant reason to fear evil spirits or demons or dead relatives coming through the board; but if you're as good a showman as Helen Peters was, your Ouija board just might make you the life of your next party.
By Brian Dunning
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Ouija Boards." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
3 Oct 2017. Web.
22 Feb 2018. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4591>
References & Further Reading
Carpenter, W. "On the influence of suggestion in modifying and directing muscular movement, independently of volition." Proceedings of the Royal Institution of Great Britain. 12 Mar. 1852, Number 10: 147-153.
Carroll, R. "Ideomotor Effect." The Skeptic's Dictionary. Robert T. Carroll, 12 Sep. 2014. Web. 5 Aug. 2015. <http://skepdic.com/ideomotor.html>
Gauchou, H., Rensink, R., Fels, S. "Expression of nonconscious knowledge via ideomotor actions." Consciousness and Cognition. 1 Jun. 2012, Volume 21, Number 2: 976-982.
Hyman, R. "How People Are Fooled by Ideomotor Action." Quackwatch. Stephen Barrett, M.D., 26 Aug. 2003. Web. 5 Jan. 2015. <http://www.quackwatch.com/01QuackeryRelatedTopics/ideomotor.html>
Rodriguez McRobbie, L. "The Strange and Mysterious History of the Ouija Board." Smithsonian.com. Smithsonian Institution, 27 Oct. 2013. Web. 1 Oct. 2017. <https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-strange-and-mysterious-history-of-the-ouija-board-5860627/>
Stafford, T. "How the Ouija Board Really Moves." Future. BBC, 30 Jul. 2013. Web. 1 Oct. 2017. <http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20130729-what-makes-the-ouija-board-move>
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