This week’s edition of Psych Wednesdays was written by Michael Kraus and was originally published on Psych Your Mind on December 4, 2011.

Earlier this year, Daryl Bem, a Professor at Cornel University, published a paper on Psi phenomena (also known as psychic phenomena). Bem’s Paper was published in the premier journal of social-personality psychology, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (JPSP). In the paper, Bem presents results from eight experiments where he finds evidence for precognition (conscious cognitive awareness of future events) and premonition (affective apprehension about future negative events). The results have shocked our field!

The experiments themselves are among the most clever I’ve read and truly–at least in my mind– are evidence of creative innovation. The experiments use normal psychological interventions (e.g., giving participants a list of words to memorize and then testing their memory for the words) in reverse order. Thus, in a memory study, participants’ memory of words is tested before they learn the words. In another experiment, participants choose between sets of neutral images, with the expectation that participants will choose these images to avoid subliminally primed negative stimuli. Once again though, participants are primed after they choose between the stimuli.

What did Bem find? Well, he found that people were better at remembering words that they were about to learn than they were words that they wouldn’t learn (precognition). He also found evidence that people tended to avoid neutral pictures that were followed by a subliminal negative stimulus prime (premonition). There you have it, the first experimental studies of psi phenomena!

This is really where the story seems to take off. When members of the field of social-personality psychology learned that this set of studies would be published in JPSP–our premier journal — many bristled. I noticed three reactions:

(1) The “Balderdash!” Reaction: There are several reasons to believe that psi is impossible (e.g., prevalence of scam artists claiming psi abilities, no way to explain how psi works). Psychologists are skeptical about plausible data by nature, and as a result, the wild psi findings were seen as an impossible fluke set of findings that would surely not stand up to the rigors of the scientific method. More specifically, researchers believed the findings would not replicate in an independent laboratory. For example, one enterprising group of social psychologists went ahead and attempted to replicate these psi findings and failed (their account is summarized here and here). I’m not aware of peer-reviewed replications, but if they exist feel free to write about them in the comments!

"The ice is gonna break!"

(2) The “Not in Our Flagship Journal!” Reaction: Other researchers were more receptive to the idea that psi could potentially exist, and that it is something that researchers can and should study, as part of the human psychological experience. They did however, have several reservations about this set of studies ending up in JPSP, the premier journal of social-personality psychology. Usually, JPSP papers must have a psychological explanation for why something occurs. As psychologists, the “why?” is our primary question in research: Why do people respond aggressively following rejection? Why do people need appreciation in relationships? Why does compassion improve well-being? In the paper itself, Bem admits that he has no real explanation for why psi might occur (and who would?). This, some would argue, is reason enough to have the psi paper rejected at JPSP.

(3) The “Our Statistics are Questionable!” Reaction:  The final reaction is probably the one that stirs the most concern among psychologists. This reaction operates under the assumption that psi does not exist and suggests that the publication of psi research represents a fundamental problem with our field. Specifically, researchers in social-personality psychology (and perhaps other fields) engage in hypothesis testing techniques that increase the likelihood of results that won’t replicate. Many of the specific practices are summarized here. Some examples include not reporting one’s failures to replicate findings, churning out studies until the data confirms one’s hypotheses, and creating hypotheses after the results are known (HARKing). The New York Times recently wrote an article suggesting that these and other practices (including faking one’s data) have damaged the field of social-personality psychology beyond repair (read the depressing piece here).

After reading the psi paper, I’d actually go with a fourth reaction. I trust Bem as a researcher, and believe that he wouldn’t publish findings that he doesn’t expect to replicate. In the psi paper itself, Bem has an entire section that both encourages researchers to replicate his work, and warns that even the most robust findings don’t always replicate. I also actually think it is neat that JPSP decided to publish this paper. Though Bem doesn’t know how psi works psychologically, he does discuss how many traits that one would expect to correlate with psi ability (e.g., openness to experience, meditation training, etc…) actually don’t seem to predict psi ability. That’s good to know when trying to avoid all the psi scams out there. Miss Cleo won’t fool you anymore!

I actually don’t believe that the psi findings damage our field either, because other fields are full of unexplained effects. Take the notion of quantum entanglements in physics for instance (forgive my public high school physics education): Physicists readily admit that particles that become separate interact in ways that can’t be explained by traditional understandings of time and space. Despite this lack of explanation, physics seems to be doing just fine as a science. Like physicists, maybe psychologists should come to terms with the fact that we won’t always know why something happens. I’m interested to hear what you think about psi!

Bem DJ (2011). Feeling the future: experimental evidence for anomalous retroactive influences on cognition and affect. Journal of personality and social psychology, 100 (3), 407-25 PMID: 21280961

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3 comments

  1. While I think that it’s important to recognize that there have been many reactions to this paper, I think it’s also to put this research into context. Certainly, there are findings in psychology that are both counter-intuitive, maybe even mysterious.

    That being said, there are also many findings that are counter-intuitive simply because they are wrong. The lack of replication for this kind of study, the fact that no plausible mechanism has been suggested for its existence, and the fact that the significance of the findings largely depends on the nature of the statistical tests being used suggest that the burden of proof is still largely on Bem to demonstrate that this effect exists in the first place.

    This is not to say that it’s not worth pursuing further, simply to say that the finding is FAR from confirmed. If this effect manages to withstand the test of the empirical method and confirmed by other groups, then it will be an interesting finding indeed. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like this is happening. Until then, I think it’s best to go with our intuition on this one and say that we probably can’t perceive the future.

  2. Hi Chris!

    I’m also a skeptic about Psi and I totally agree that Bem’s empirical evidence for it falls “FAR from” confirming its existence, as you put it. That said, a healthy science can’t simply go with intuition when deciding if a peer-reviewed, multi-study, demonstration of an effect is real. The only way to accomplish this, in my view, is to conduct the (non-)replication studies to show it. So far I’m only aware of the one set of studies I mentioned in the blog post (perhaps you are aware of others?). I’d say this is also far from confirming psi does not exist.

    To demonstrate why this might be important: My intuition (because I’m liberal) is that liberals are more compassionate than conservatives. If someone publishes an article saying that conservatives are more compassionate than liberals, I would likely feel that this result is completely implausible. Despite this, I should resist the impulse to dismiss this evidence simply because it goes against my intuition. Instead, others in the field should try to replicate this finding. It’s healthy science to engage in a suspension of final judgment on the effect in order to protect the field from potentially dismissing the implausible/unpopular, yet true, findings (this argument was first made, about politics, by social psychologist Jon Haidt).

  3. I think that we’re in agreement when it comes to how science should approach this situation: with a healthy dose of skepticism. That’s what keeps science from straying into wishy washy territory.

    While it’s important not to dismiss others because of your prior beliefs, it’s also important to be on the lookout for statements that were made without the rigor and double-checking that the scientific community allows.

    In this case, a paper was written on a phenomenon that has no credible evidence for it thus far, in a task that has not been replicated at all, and with a set of data analysis methods that have been extensively critiqued by many well-respected statisticians. To this extent, the burden of proof is still largely on Bem and those who might side with him.

    As scientific writers, I think that it’s important for us to be keenly aware of this delicate position that scientists are all in. On the one hand, we want to tell the world that we’ve discovered something amazing, that our research is meaningful. On the other, history has shown time and time again the errs of making sensational statements that weren’t strongly backed up by facts.

    It is the writer’s job to distill this incredibly complex process into a form that is interesting, understandable, and above all accurate for the readers. There’s a very fine line between coming up with interesting new theories and engaging in unjustified wishful thinking. It is for this reason that I err on the side of skepticism in scientific writing. Unfortunately for Bem, the skeptic in me hasn’t seen nearly enough to conclude that a psi effect exists at all.