Most people have experienced the sensation that someone is staring at them, only to turn around and find that indeed, someone's gaze is burning a hole in the back of their head. The phenomenon has led some to believe that people must have a sixth sense that allows them to know they are being stared at. However, when experimenters have investigated whether the phenomenon is a real one, the results seem to depend on who is doing the research. For example, the sceptic Richard Wiseman always reports negative results whereas the believer in psychic ability Marilyn Schlitz always reports positive results. So Wiseman and Schlitz decided to do some research together to find out what was going on.
The pair conducted research that involved recording the skin conductance (a measure of emotional arousal) of people who were sometimes stared at, via a live video feed, by an experimenter sat in another room. In earlier work, they found that if Marilyn Shlitz, the psychic believer, did the greeting of participants and did the staring, then participants tended to show more emotional arousal when they were being stared at. However, when Richard Wiseman, the sceptic, did the greeting and staring, evidence for the 'sense of being stared at' was not found.
In the current experiment at the Institute of Noetic Sciences in America, where Schlitz is based, the two researchers broke things down still further to isolate the source of their earlier inconsistent findings. This time, Wiseman sometimes did the greeting while Schlitz did the staring, and vice versa. However, none of these manipulations made any difference - participants didn't show more emotional arousal when they were being stared at regardless of who did the greeting or staring. Schlitz's rapport with participants and expectations of success, which were also measured, also had no association with the outcome.
The researchers concluded that the latest findings have failed to explain their earlier inconsistent results, but they said "this series of experiments demonstrates that it is possible to conduct fruitful collaborative research involving both sceptics and proponents and it offers the potential of a more productive route than more traditional forms of sceptic-proponent debate".
They added "It is hoped that the studies described here will encourage researchers working in other controversial areas (e.g. the role of trance in hypnosis, false memory syndrome, unorthodox forms of psychotherapy and complimentary and alternative medicine) to engage in similar joint projects and that such work will help advance our understanding of the phenomena underlying these controversies".
Schiltz, M., Wiseman, R., Watt, C. & Radin, D. (2006). Of two minds: Sceptic-proponent collaboration within parapsychology. British Journal of Psychology. In Press, DOI:1348/000712605X80704.
Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.