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.

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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is presumed that various “automatic writing” divination devices have existed as long as literacy, with the first known historical reference to a writing board dating from 1100 CE in China.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...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.