After doing a poll over on my Instagram, and by the interest of my beautiful girlfriend Tristin, it looks like quite a few people want to know why we believe in ouija boards. I found this topic interesting not only for the supernatural psychology aspect, but recently, my son and I have jumped into horror movies with my girlfriend. Although I was largely a wuss when it came to spooky movies, my girlfriend’s love for them has shown me that there’s some fun in controlled fear.
During this last week, my son and I binge-watched all four Paranormal Activity movies with Tristin because they’re some of her favs. In the first movie, when hoping to find out what this demon wants, the main character Micah suggests trying a ouija board. Katie, who this demon seems to be attached to is immediately scared by Micah even suggesting this, and she makes him promise not to try it. But, in a twist of words, Micah merely promises not to buy a ouija board, but later he brings one home and justifies it by saying he kept his promise because he borrowed it.
This triggers a huge fight between Micah and Katie, and when they leave the house, we see the board move on its own and then catch fire.
This is actually quite common too. Not the ouija board moving because of a spirit and then catching fire, but people are legitimately afraid to use one. In Paranormal Activity, they say it’s dangerous because you’re then inviting the demon in, or there’s the concern they might aggravate it. One of the reasons I love my girlfriend is because we have interesting conversations while critically thinking, and although we’re both huge skeptics, she was telling me how she would be reluctant to use a ouija board.
I found this really interesting.
In a recent supernatural psychology video, I asked how many of you would live in a house where murders took place. And in the last video, I discussed how many of us atheists wouldn’t sell our soul. So today, I thought it’d be interesting to dive into the supernatural psychology of ouija boards because there’s actually some science behind how they work.
In order to understand how ouija boards work, we need to discuss a psychological phenomenon called the ideomotor effect.
The Ideomotor Effect
In a hilarious episode of Bob’s Burgers that took place in season 5, Tina falls in love with a ghost named Jeff who she keeps in a shoebox. When Tammy, Jocelyn, Zeke, and Jimmy Jr. are skeptical of the existence of Jeff, Louise convinces them to use a ouija board to communicate with Jeff. After Zeke asks Jeff what type of food ghosts eat, the ouija board replies with “S-O-U-P”, and all the kids end up believing they actually communicated with this ghost named Jeff.
Later, we find out that Louise was tricking the kids and was actually moving the planchette. And I assume that even most skeptics figure that when using the board with other people, someone must be moving it. But what’s really interesting is that even if you used the board alone, it would move. To understand this, we need to explain the ideomotor effect.
As Dr. Steven Novella describes in his book The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, he explains the ideomotor effect as, “Involuntary, subtle muscle movement triggered by an expectation that creates the illusion that the movement was caused by an external force.”
The ideomotor effect is just another whacky part of our brain that many of us are completely unaware of. This explains many beliefs that date back to ancient times before we had the scientific progress that we had today. Even as recently as 1933, the British Society of Dowsers was founded.
Dowsing is something you may have seen before where people take two rods and believe they can point you in the direction of water. You hold the two rods parallel, and as you near water, the rods cross. While sometimes a dowser will get lucky and stumble across water based on random chance, there’s no scientific evidence that dowsing works in any scientific way. Dowsers also believe that this practice can find metal ores, gemstones, oil, and more, which would completely defy the laws of physics.
Psychologist Ray Hyman has done quite a bit of research into the ideomotor effect to explain why this happens. Hyman says, “Under a variety of circumstances, our muscles will behave unconsciously in accordance with an implanted expectation. What makes this simple fact so important is that we are not aware that we ourselves are the source of the resulting action. This lack of any sense of volition is common in many everyday actions”
So, this also helps explain why we believe ouija boards work. Like Hyman states, this happens unconsciously in accordance with an implanted expectation. This is why a ouija board planchette may move even if we’re not using the board with friends. But when with friends, the board may have more power if multiple people have similar unconscious expectations.
While this may help explain something like the board’s yes or no questions, what about when the board actually spells out words? Well, think about it. Have you ever watched Wheel of Fortune or played a game of hangman? Our brain is a prediction machine and is constantly trying to fill in gaps and guess what’s coming, and this is especially true with words. As the planchette moves to a letter, the unconscious ideomotor effect kicks in and starts spelling out a word. Then, we use post hoc reasoning to explain what this word means in relation to what we’re asking or experiencing.
The Implications for Everyday Life
Sometimes, when I discuss supernatural psychology, I ask wonder, “Chris, are you just being a buzzkill?”. As many of you know, I hold firmly to the belief that if it’s not hurting anyone, who cares. For example, even though I’m an atheist, if you’re a believer, as long as you’re not trying to harm people, do your thang.
So, is it a big deal if you and your friends have a spooky night and use a ouija board and think it’s real? As long as you don’t make any major life decisions that may have a negative impact, I’d say no. Or is it a big deal that my highly intelligent and rational girlfriend would be reluctant to use a ouija board? Not really. I don’t expect that ever being the catalyst for a fight in our relationship.
Although I’d argue that in the majority of cases, it’s no big deal whether or not people believe in ouija boards, there are some concerns. For example, there’s a booming industry of psychic mediums who manipulate people out of a lot of money by taking advantage of their belief in the supernatural. Some grieving people desperate to speak to a loved one who passed away may spend thousands trying to communicate with them. Others may spend 10s of thousands of dollars in psychics trying to induce more control over their lives.
If your belief in the supernatural is hurting you psychologically or financially, I write these pieces on critical thinking and skepticism for you. But, what if I told you that this belief has actually led to hundreds of deaths?
Currently, James McCormick is spending 10 years in prison for taking advantage of peoples’ ignorance about the ideomotor effect. At first, McCormick started by selling a golf ball finder using a similar framework as dowsers. But, money is one of the most corruptive influences, so he eventually upgraded to saying that he’d invented a device that can locate land mines, and he’s thought to have made upwards of £50 million from the sales of more than 7,000 of these fake devices.
According to the BBC, one invoice showed sales of £38 over three years to Iraq. He also sold these bogus devices to countries such as Thailand, Georgia, Romania, and more. As a result, hundreds have people have died using his devices while searching for landmines.
So, although ouija boards are largely just for a spooky evening of fun, when we lack critical thinking skills and skepticism, our ignorance can have devastating results. Many of us won’t be defrauded by a psychic or a guy selling fake bomb-detection devices, but we need to look at the bigger picture. By being skeptical and practicing critical thinking, we’re increasing our ability to pause and question what we’re reading in the news or even gossip our friends are telling us. And when we educate ourselves about how the mind works, we can better understand some of its unconscious reactions such as biases or the ideomotor effect.
If you need help with your mental health, I highly recommend the service I use, BetterHelp. They’re an affordable online therapy service, and by using this affiliate link, you help support The Rewired Soul.