Brian Sullivan

By Richard Wiseman
Last week I teamed up with New Scientist magazine to conduct the first scientific experiment using Twitter. First, a huge ‘thank you’ to everyone who participated. So, what do we do and what did we find?

The experiment examined remote viewing – the alleged psychic ability to “see” distant locations.

The first trial was an informal affair, and involved me travelling to a secret location and then sending out a “tweet” asking participants to tweet back their thoughts concerning my location. Twenty minutes later, I sent a second tweet containing the address of a website that allowed everyone to view a photograph of the location (a weir). I also asked the participants to rate both their belief in the paranormal and the degree to which their thoughts matched the target.

More than 1000 people participated, with paranormal believers claiming high levels of correspondence between their thoughts and the actual location.

The formal part of the study took place over four days and tested both whether the group as a whole was psychic and whether believers outperformed disbelievers. On each day I travelled to a randomly selected location and asked everyone to send tweets describing their thoughts about the location.

In the judging phase, participants were presented with five photographs, one showing the location and four decoys, and asked to select the target. The photograph that received the most votes was taken as the group’s decision.

If the group were psychic, the majority would vote for the correct target. In the first trial I was looking up at a striking, modern-looking building. Unfortunately, the group voted for some woods.

On trial two I was sitting in the middle of a playground, but the group thought I was standing at the foot of a long stairway. The third trial found me under an unusual-looking canopy; the group voted for a graveyard.

On the final trial I stared intently at a red postbox. The group believed that I was standing at the side of a canal. In short, all four trials were misses.

When I analysed believers and sceptics separately, the results were the same, with no difference between the groups. So the study didn’t support the existence of remote viewing, and suggested that those who believe in the paranormal are good at finding illusory correspondences between their thoughts and a target .

But perhaps the most important outcome was to demonstrate that thousands of people are happy to take part in an instant Twitter study. Any ideas on possible studies? And any thoughts about the results?

Finally, here is a great video from the Wall Street Journal showing the study in action here.

Update: I have just looked at the data from those who claimed some kind of psychic ability, and had a high confidence in their choice of target. This sub-group of participants also scored zero out of four.

Mind Power Masters

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