It’s an accusation often fired at psychologists at parties: ‘I bet you can tell what I’m thinking’. Now psychologists, much to their own surprise, have found scientific evidence that this might actually be the case.
In a series of studies reported today in the Journal of Metacognition, researchers found that qualified psychologists significantly outperformed matched controls on experimental tasks measuring the ability to guess a target selected by others from a random stimulus array.
The original aim of the study was to assess whether there was any validity to parapsychology claims of ‘remote viewing’ abilities in the normal population. A participant selects one of five ‘target’ pictures – of former politician Lembit Opik, a duck, a map of Seattle, a weasel with a chainsaw, and some wool. Will a ‘viewer’ in another room – completely blind to the selection process – be able to tell which image the participant has in their mind?
We would expect the viewers to be right 20 per cent of the time, purely by chance. But the experimenters discovered something quite unexpected. Their colleagues – postgraduate researchers, lecturers and professors in psychology – appeared to be much more successful at the task than were people from other disciplines. ‘Initially, we were skeptical about the whole thing,’ lead researcher Professor Chris Turner told the Research Digest. ‘But on performing the statistical analysis, I spilled my latte all down my white lab coat. When we considered the results from the “trained psychologists” as one group, we found a hugely significant difference, with the psychologists outperforming the “controls” by more than two to one.’
|Psychologists outperformed controls by more than two to one.|
Professor Turner replicated the group’s own results before running a new experiment. Would the influence work the other way? Could psychologists actually be more successful at implanting a phrase into the mind of someone in another room? Using the script from a 1989 episode of British sitcom ‘Only Fools and Horses’, the one where Del Boy falls through the bar, ‘transmitters’ had to attempt to ‘send’ a snippet – ‘We’re on a winner here, Trig’, ‘play it nice and cool’, etc – to the ‘receiver’. Incredibly, the ‘trained psychologists’ group was significantly better at transmitting one of quotes to an isolated individual.
Professor Chris French, Head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths, University of London, expressed doubt about the validity of the claims. He told the Research Digest that we should always be wary of dramatic claims until they have been reliably replicated by independent researchers, adding that ‘no such effects have been found in studies carried out by members of the APRU’.
As for the researchers themselves, how do they feel about their newfound ‘abilities’? ‘I knew you were going to ask that!’, Professor Turner said. ‘Seriously though, it has had the effect of bringing us closer together as researchers. Before the study, we were spread across different universities, but as we speak I’m in the process of bringing the whole group together into a newly formed research unit, on the site of an old abandoned old abandoned TV transmitter. There’s some resistance from our ethics committee, but we’re confident we can overcome this.’
Turner, C., Nilsson, R., King, P., Harkes, J., Shirtliff, P., Pearson, N., Wilson, D., Sheridan, J., Hirst, D., Williams, P. & Worthington, N. (2014). Brief report: Evidence of superior mindreading and control in professional psychologists? Journal of Metacognition, 4 (1), 91-92.
Update: April Fools’ Day: … many thanks to Professor Chris French for being a good sport, as ever, and to the 1991 League Cup winning Sheffield Wednesday FC side for conducting the research.