Today I am going to be blogging about a very interesting psychological effect which has its hands in a lot of different pseudosciences. Amongst other things, the Ideomotor effect is credited with the natural explanation of Ouija boards, facilitated communication, dowsing and automatic writing.
The Ideomotor effect is a psychological phenomenon where a person performs slight actions subconsciously. In its most pure form, this effect accounts for bodily actions which take place without conscious decision by the subject. The production of tears is a result of the ideomotor effect in reaction to strong emotions. Instinctive jerking actions which happen when a person is injured in some way are effects of ideomotor. However, it has much more subtle and suggestive effects.
Dowsing, also known as divination, the pseudoscience in which a person holds some sort of stick or rod, and attempts to find water, or metals and ores, gemstones and many other objects, by feeling the vibrations or swaying of said held stick or rod. While dowsing also employs plenty of other logical fallacies and scientific phenomenons, like cherry-picking and confirmation bias, the most common phenomenon involved is the ideomotor effect. By holding out a stick steadily, your body will subconsciously make your hands move in slight ways which effect the direction the stick is pointing in. These small hand movements are what dowsers are following when they search for ground water.
Another common pseudoscience which involves the ideomotor effect is contacting spirits through a Ouija board. The way a Ouija board is set up is that a Board is set up with a smooth cloth layed over it. On the cloth are numbers, letters and sometimes the words ‘yes’, ‘no’ and ‘try again’ or ‘maybe’. An eyepiece of some sort is then placed on the board. Partakers in the activity then all place their hands on the eyepiece lightly, and watch the eyepiece as it seemingly glides around the board, spelling out words, questions, and making conversations. It’s great fun to play with, and the underlying factor in all of it is the ideomotor effect. The reason that the eyepiece is spelling so well and making correct sentences is because all of the players are subtly moving the eyepiece towards where they think it should go.
There is a very simple way to test this. By blind folding the participants, the effect is completely removed. Instead of the eyepiece moving elegantly around the board spelling eloquent sentences, it is just a mish-mash of random letters and numbers. If the body has no way of knowing how to subconsciously control the eyepiece in a certain way, then the body cannot do it, and nothing happens.
However, the most pseudoscientific, and obvious, use of the ideomotor effect is in facilitated communication. The concept of facilitated communication is as follows. A mentally disabled child will attempt to communicate with the outside world. It is done with the help of a facilitator. This facilitator will hold the hand of the mentally disabled child, while the child seemingly points towards letters on a board, presses keys on a keyboard or other simple communication types. This process has long been shown to be pseudoscientific from a few different lines of reasoning. It is now well-known that ideomotor effects on the part of the facilitator are responsible for the writing of the children.
The children who are communicating, if they are communicating, are writing poetry and pieces of literature well above their age or mental ability. They are also saying things which are well above their knowledge, claiming things about having problems in a specific part of the brain, despite this being well above their intelligence. However, the most definite piece of evidence is the same evidence which can be used to disprove a Ouija board, as they both rely on the same phenomenon. By simply blinding the facilitator, the effect is completely removed, and the children write random letters and numbers, with no specific words being made.
The ideomotor effect has another name, which it is commonly called by, the Clever Hans effect, so-called because of a show horse from around 1900. This horse, unlike other show horses, didn’t jump barrels or other fancy stuff like that, he did arithmetic. A spectator from the crowd would shout out a simple arithmetic sum, 4 + 3, for example, and the horse would tap its hoof 7 times. The horse and its trainer traveled showing off its amazing talents, but in 1907, an investigation was conducted by psychologist Oskar Pfungst, to find out how Clever Hans could conduct his arithmetic. After his investigation, Pfungst concluded that Clever Hans was not actually performing feats of simple maths skills, but was only cuing in on subtle, subconscious actions on the part of the trainer, who had no idea he was giving off those clues. This was probably one of the first recorded observations of the ideomotor effect. I suppose it is still fair to call Hans a ‘clever’ horse, because its clever of him to notice those small clues, and get his reward.
This is probably one of the first recorded observations of the ideomotor effect. The phenomenon is still remembered in tribute to Clever Hans, as it is the start of a long line of pseudosciences which have cued in on this subtle psychological effect to produce random results, cherry-pick data and use confirmation bias to create pseudosciences. I hope you enjoyed and learned from my special on the ideomotor effect and go away armed with another tool in the skeptical tool belt, to fight pseudoscience and illogic with science and knowledge, knowing that all pseudosciences use the same fallacies in their logic.