Predicting the Future (or at Least Predicting Where Naked People Are)


In his article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Daryl Bem recalls a scene from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass between Alice and the White Queen. Alice complains that “one cannot believe impossible things,” and the White Queen retorts, “I daresay you haven’t had much practice. When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” Why is Daryl Bem, respected psychologist known for his contribution to our understanding of self-perception, quoting lines from a book about nonsense and impossible things? Because he wants scientists to believe in one abnormal thing—humans can predict the future.

To discover the basis of the sixth sense, or ESP, Bem administered nine different tests to 1,000 students at Cornell University. Most of the tasks required that the students predict something.

For one test, he asked 100 students to look a noun, which popped up on a computer screen for three seconds, visualize it, then move on to the next word. After this repeating this exercise with 48 nouns, he asked the students to type in as many words as the remembered. Following this, the computer randomly selected half of the words and the students looked at the words and memorized them. They were better able to remember words they had randomly recalled and retyped after the first quiz. Bem writes: “The results show that practicing a set of words after the recall test does, in fact, reach back in time to facilitate the recall of those words.”

If this wrinkle in recall seems unconvincing perhaps Bem can sway you with our ability to predict erotic pictures. Students looked at a computer screen with two curtains. One curtain hid a naked picture while the other did not. Bem asked the students to predict which curtain hid the porn. This exercise gives students 50-50 odds. But Bem found that in 53.1 percent of the time, the students correctly predicted which curtain covered the salacious images. In fact, when the students repeated this test with ordinary pictures they were only able to correctly predict where the picture was 49.8 percent of the time. Some argue his results aren’t statistically significant enough to prove the existence of ESP and researchers who have attempted to replicate his findings have failed.

But, Bem finds a lot of inspiration in Through the Looking Glass. He writes about the White Queen telling Alice that her memory works both ways—in recalling the past and seeing the future. While Alice balks, the Queen quips: “It's a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.”

Bem couldn’t agree more.

Most scientists don’t believe in things like ESP and after reading this paper, they still don’t; in fact, many think Bem is a little loopy for pursuing it. To get to the truthiness of this controversial issue, Stephen Colbert interviewed Bem about time traveling porn last Thursday: