Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

The Moving Finger Writes, and Tells a Ghost Story

Credit: Couperfield/Adobe

Credit: Couperfield/Adobe

By Tim Hannan

A reduced sense of personal agency persuades Ouija board users to believe in ghostly messages.

Ouija board users believe that a spirit is able to send messages to the living by moving a pointer across a lettered board. While the veracity of these beliefs may be readily debunked, psychologists have long been interested in understanding why devotees are so readily convinced that the movement is not of their own or others’ making. A new study has now proposed that participants are unknowingly taking turns at controlling the board, and that it is this incomplete awareness of their own control that encourages the feeling that an external agent is at work.

Ouija boards emerged in the USA after the civil war, being promoted as a means for grieving families to contact the departed. The current form was patented as a parlour game in 1890, with its name believed to derive from a combination of the French and German words for “yes”.

It is presumed that various “automatic writing” divination devices have existed as long as literacy, with the first known historical reference to a writing board dating from 1100 CE in China. Among earlier devices were pendulum oracles, such as the one employed by two fourth century plebeians in an attempt to divine the next Roman emperor; unfortunately, neither predicted that their efforts would lead to a quick and painful termination of their careers.

Typically, the Ouija board board presents the alphabet, the numbers 1 to 10, and the words “yes”, “no”, “hello” and “goodbye” in an array on which is placed a triangular or heart-shaped object called a planchette. Two or more participants place their hands lightly on the planchette, and observe its movements around the board, which usually progress from random letters to coherent phrases. These are interpreted as communications from spirits, often the deceased relatives of those present, with this conclusion encouraged by each participant’s subjective experience that they are not themselves controlling the planchette’s movement.

A recent study by a team of Danish and German researchers explored the subjective experience of a loss of a sense of agency, in which people feel that they are not in control of their apparent actions. While Ouija board devotees had long been considered good subjects for such research, no previous study had attempted to observe them in “real life” settings, so the researchers decided to attend a Ouija board conference in the USA.

Using eye-tracking devices, the team investigated whether participants, acting in pairs, were looking ahead to a letter prior to the planchette pointing to it, which would suggest that they were predicting its movement and therefore knew which word was being spelt. As a control task, the pair was also asked to spell out words given to them by the experimenters.

As expected, in this control condition participants displayed a high proportion of predictive eye movements: when spelling the required word they frequently looked ahead to the next letter. In the experimental condition, predictive eye movements were much less common, suggesting that the participants had less knowledge about the word being spelt.

However, when the predictive eye movements of both participants were examined together, it was evident that the overall prediction of the pair was as high as in the control condition. For every move of the planchette, at least one of the participants usually predicted the next letter.

The results suggest that coherent messages emerge from the joint activity of the Ouija board users, though not necessarily from the deliberate action of either person. As any one individual is not able to fully predict the message, his or her sense of personal agency is reduced, and this creates the feeling that there must be another force producing the message.

As in previous research, a person’s willingness to accept a mystical explanation for any phenomenon is also affected by their existing beliefs. In this study, the strength of participants’ beliefs in the existence of spirits who could be contacted through Ouija boards predicted their attribution of the planchette’s movement to ghostly agents.

The study adds to the growing body of research that illuminates how easily the mind can be tricked by sensory information into non-scientific explanations. When combined with belief in supernatural entities, this enables a person to prefer an implausible hypothesis to a simpler explanation.

The study also prompts another question: at Ouija board conferences, do non-corporeal delegates receive a complimentary ghost pass to the opening cocktail party, or are they advised that spirits are not served?

A/Prof Tim Hannan is Head of the School of Psychology at Charles Sturt University, and the Past President of the Australian Psychological Society.