I stare at the two curtains side by side on my computer screen. I try to focus on the task at hand: Which image has a photo hidden behind it? And what might it be? The alpine lake at sunset? The loving husband embracing his wife?
I choose the curtain on the left. Behind it are a naked man and woman, fucking.
The pair’s sleek, airbrushed bodies flash on my monitor for precisely two seconds, long enough for me to wonder: Did they know? When these two posed, could they guess that one day this JPEG would wind up on a Mac Mini in a lab at Cornell University? Did he know that from his depilated testicles might be launched the first salvo in the war against the ESP skeptics? Did she know her O-face might change the face of science? Could they see the future?
Maybe so, if you believe the research of Daryl Bem. According to “Feeling the Future,” a peer-reviewed paper the APA’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology will publish this month, Bem has found evidence supporting the existence of precognition. The experiment I’m trying, one of nine Bem cites in his study, asks me to guess which of two curtains hides a photograph. (Some of the images are erotic, some neutral, in an attempt to see if different kinds of photos have different effects.) If mere chance governed each guess, I’d be right 50 percent of the time. Naturally, I’d guess correctly more like 100 percent of the time if you showed me where the photo was before I chose.
But what about if you showed me the photo’s location immediately after I chose? Perhaps, if I had ESP, I could peek into the future and improve my guesswork, even just a little bit. Over seven years, Bem tested more than 1,000 subjects in this very room, and he believes he’s demonstrated that some mysterious force gives humans just the slightest leg up on chance.
Responses to Bem’s paper by the scientific community have ranged from arch disdain to frothing rejection. And in a rebuttal—which, uncommonly, is being published in the same issue of JPSP as Bem’s article—another scientist suggests that not only is this study seriously flawed, but it also foregrounds a crisis in psychology itself.
The scourge of responsible psychological research stands behind me, wearing a red cardigan and an expression of great interest. “How were your results?” Bem asks. He points out that I scored better predicting the location of erotic photos—in Bem’s hypothesis, more arousing images are more likely to inspire ESP—than I did boring old landscapes and portraits. In this dingy lab in the basement of an Ivy League psych department, is the future now?
Even before Daryl Bem, 72, began studying ESP, he was a mind reader—or rather, a mentalist, who performed Kreskin-style magic acts for students and friends. He knew how easily audiences could be tricked, so he was a skeptic about parapsychology, or PSI. “Like most psychologists,” he says, sitting on an elderly couch in his townhouse two miles from Cornell’s campus in Ithaca, “I knew all the ways in which people could fool themselves and interpret coincidences as premonitions.” But reading the existing PSI research changed his opinion about how the brain works. Years ago, he says, “the model of the brain we had was more of a switchboard: stimulus in, response out. Now we have a richer metaphor for thinking about the brain: the computer.” His hands trace a flourish in the air, as if to say Presto!“Short-term and long-term memory have analogs in the computer. There’s stuff in RAM that’ll disappear when you turn the computer off, and there’s stuff you’ve saved to disk. The computer does an enormous amount of unconscious processing—that is, stuff that does not appear on the screen, if you think of the screen as the consciousness.”
Over seven years, Bem measured what he considers statistically significant results in eight of his nine studies. In the experiment I tried, the average hit rate among 100 Cornell undergraduates for erotic photos was 53.1 percent. (Neutral photos showed no effect.) That doesn’t seem like much, but as Bem points out, it’s about the same as the house’s advantage in roulette.
Thinking counterintuitively about ESP appealed to him. “My career has been characterized,” he says, “by trying to solve conundrums where I just don’t believe the conventional explanation.” More than 40 years ago, Bem’s doctoral dissertation challenged the dominant paradigm of social psychology, Leon Festinger’s concept of cognitive dissonance. Bem’s groundbreaking “self-perception theory” suggests that rather than possessing an ironclad sense of self, we define our own emotions and attitudes using the same haphazard external cues (If I bite my nails, I must be nervous) that others use when observing us. “It’s a clever theory,” Bem says, “but what made me rich and famous is that I called the article ‘Self-Perception Theory: An Alternative to Cognitive Dissonance.’ ”