Despite being around for over 100 years, Ouija boards (a wooden board covered with the letters of the alphabet, the numbers 0-9 and the words ‘yes’, ‘no’ and ‘goodbye’) continue to be a popular activity – especially around Halloween. To work, all participants must place their hands on the wooden marker (or planchette) and ask the “spirits” present to answer their questions by moving the planchette around the board to write their answer.
While some see it as a harmless parlor game, others swear by the board’s ability to communicate with those who have crossed over to “the other side.” But even though science suggests that ghosts aren’t behind the mysterious backgammon movements, explaining how they work isn’t as simple as you might expect.
The history of the Ouija board is long and varied. It can initially be traced in part to the Fox Sisters, popular in the mid-19th century who pioneered the spiritualism movement. One of their most commonly used methods of communicating with the so-called spirits involved saying the alphabet aloud and hearing a knock in response. This allowed them to spell words and messages, supposedly from the dead.
This method captured the imagination of the public, but was quickly disappointing. People wanted to be able to communicate with spirits as quickly as they could communicate with humans using new technologies such as the telegraph. So when the Ouija board was finally developed in 1890, it was an instant success.
But despite its early popularity, the Ouija board fell out of favor in the early 20th century. This was largely due to many prominent media outlets that used the device being publicly debunked. Even the Society for Psychical Research moved away from spirit communication, towards other paranormal phenomena such as extrasensory perception (the ability to send and receive information with your mind) and haunted houses. However, interest in spiritualism and Ouija boards in general quickly revived after the Second World War – and continues to this day.
Ouija boards at work
But do Ouija boards work? It depends on who you ask. For those who believe in the ability to communicate with spirits, the answer would be yes. But since there is no conclusive evidence that spirits exist, the answer from skeptics and scientists would be an emphatic no. And yet we often hear stories from so-called “non-believers” who say they felt the planchette move over the table, spelling out words and telling them things that no one else around the table could know. So, if these aren’t fantastic messages from the other side, what is?
One possible answer is the ideomotor phenomenon. The term ideokinetic comes from ideo (an idea) and kinetic (muscular activity), suggesting that our movements can be driven by our thoughts. The ideomotor phenomenon refers to movements people make that they are unaware of – referred to as subconscious movement. So when using a Ouija board, for example, a person can subconsciously move the board, saying things that only they would know.
Those around them may also contribute their own subconscious motion, which may also explain why the planchette appears to move independently. This phenomenon may also explain a variety of other paranormal phenomena – including automatic writing and dowsing (a type of pseudoscience that uses a y-shaped twig or metal rods to find the location of buried objects, such as water or oil) .
Another explanation, which is also linked to the ideomotor phenomenon, is related to our sense of action. The sense of agency refers to our subjective ability to control actions that will have an effect on external events. So, for example, if you decide to lift a table up, it will make it move.
Experiments with Ouija boards have shown that our sense of agency can be manipulated into believing that an invisible third party is moving the board. This is thought to be due to issues our brains face in predicting the consequences of outcomes. When our predictions match the outcome (for example, you pick up the table and the table moves), we feel responsible for the action. But if we feel that the actual outcome doesn’t match how we expected things to turn out, then our sense of commitment diminishes – and we’re likely, in the context of a concert, to attribute that movement as coming from an external source.
A third factor to consider is emotional contagion. We know that shocking, highly emotional events can cause bystanders to “catch” those emotions. This was thought to be a dominant factor in the Salem and European witch trials.
So when we use a Ouija board with other people, the excitement of the highly charged environment can make it easier for us to begin empathizing with those around us. This can make us understand their fear and anxiety, making us more likely to believe that the planchette is moving on its own.
It is then possible to see that a combination of factors – the ideomotor effect, a manipulated sense of agency and emotional contagion – can all combine to convince people that the planche is moving and spirits are speaking to them. But given how difficult it is to reproduce the social setting in which most people use Ouija boards in a laboratory, we cannot say with absolute certainty that these factors alone explain what actually happens when we place our fingers on the board and we invite the spirits to share their knowledge.
As some experts note, the public’s desire to communicate with the dead tends to become more popular after periods of social and political upheaval. Given today’s social, economic and political climate – including the COVID-19 pandemic, the ongoing war in Ukraine and the cost of living crisis – it’s entirely possible we’ll see a return to Victorian-era boardrooms. Or at least, on TikTok.
Megan Kenny, Senior Lecturer in Psychology, Sheffield Hallam University
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.