Monday, 20 June 2016

The Real Dangers of the Ouija Board: Ignorance and Delusion.

 Steve Huff is upsetting folks again, so I'm going to take some time out of my busy day (that beer isn't going to drink itself you know) to rubbish his latest bullshit claim or despicable lack of respect for the dead. Let's see what Huff has said now (highlighting not added by me):

 Wait.... I wasn't expecting this, but I agree with much of that statement. What's going on? I agree with Steve Huff... What's the expression for such an event? Oh yeah...

Of course, I disagree with the specifics of why Huff believes the Ouija board is harmless, and we shouldn't give Huff too much credit, a broken clock is right twice a day after all. Huff believes that the devices he uses are much more powerful, and therefore more dangerous than the Ouija board as it opens "larger portals". Whilst I hold, that neither the Ouija board nor any other ITC or spirit communication device opens a "portal" of any kind. Further to this, there's no reason to believe any such portals exist in the first place.

This implication of "my portal is bigger than your portal" one-upmanship" isn't what has upset some in the paranormal community, however, it's the idea that Huff could suggest that Ouija boards pose no danger to users beyond the dangers of suggestibility. Here's an example of the furious reaction that suggesting the Ouija board isn't dangerous can illicit from Facebook page "The Paranormal Archives":

Hmmm... I'd actually agree with the opening statement: Demon communication is not an option. Demons don't exist. Also, there are some great reasons for owning a Ouija board even if you don't believe them to be a spirit communication device. How about to admire the craftsmanship of a particular talking board? Many of these boards are very aesthetically pleasing, is it any wonder that some people would want to collect such things? Or perhaps to admire the historical aspect? Or for the purposes of displaying the curious nature of the ideomotor effect? The board can certainly be an interesting curio. Or what about using the board for it original purposes, as a game or parlour trick?

The rage that implying a talking board is not a deadly spirit summoning device can cause is not restricted to social media of course. Take a look at some of the hilarious reviews that the sale of a pink ouija board designed for children (left) elicited on
Many of the reviewers hit on a particular theme. The irresponsibility of allowing a child to use a Ouija board, the potential harm that could result from this. Let's be clear here: a Ouija board cannot hurt either a child or a vulnerable adult, or anyone else for that matter. What can hurt these individuals, is the ignorance, fear and superstition surrounding the talking board. The only antidote to this is educating people regarding the actual mechanism behind the movement of a planchette on the board.

The problem is that the only debates that are currently raging with regards to Ouija boards is "Are they dangerous are they not? Do they contact ghosts or demons?" The truth is that these debates are the equivalent of two bald men fighting over a comb. The debate is settled by the fact that there's a very rational mechanism behind the Ouija effect.

The only actual mystery behind the Ouija board is how an explanation can be so straight forward, confirmed and tested and widely known yet not be "common knowledge" amongst believers. The ideomotor effect isn't a new phenomenon,  William Benjamin Carpenter, a British physiologist, introduced this theory in 1852. As Scott G Eberle explains in a 2012 article for Psychology Today:
"The planchette may seem to drag our hands along as it selects letters that spell out words, but it happens that muscular action does not always arise out of deliberate will or volition, or in fact, even upon our awareness. Our keen expectations for a certain outcome will sometimes direct the movements of our arms and hands as the planchette glides easily on felt-covered feet. This happens at a level that lies below our conscious attention. “Dousing” sticks or “divining” rods which also appear to move strangely on their own work in exactly this way by amplifying muscle movements. Whether we’re looking for buried pipes or for answers, though, subtle unacknowledged suggestions, not spirits, guide our actions. Yes, we select the letters ourselves in this game; it’s just that sometimes we don’t quite know that we do it or how we do it."-Scott G Eberle, Psychology Today(2012)
 So why are many believers unaware of this rational explanation of the Ouija phenomena?

I believe one of the main reasons for this is the popularity of a Ouija board as a paranormal Mac Guffin (a plot device in the form of some goal, desired object, or another motivator that the protagonist pursues, often with little or no narrative explanation. The specific nature of a MacGuffin is typically unimportant to the overall plot.-Wikipedia) in popular culture. Think of the amount of horror films that use the concept of a protagonist using a Ouija board and inadvertently triggering a sequence of paranormal events. Whilst it's become something of a lazy cliche, one has to credit the incredible social influence of the movie The Exorcist in almost single-handedly creating such a powerful and widespread, and widely believed for that matter, trope. It wasn't the first movie to use the Ouija board in such a way, but it is by far the most influential and is responsible for much of the fear around the board.  Sorry Koko, you might have been in the first piece of film to show a Ouija board but that's what you get for being the star of a massively racist cartoon.

This trope doesn't just effect the movies. The Ouija effect is part of the cultural zeitgeist. Everyone and their Aunt in the paranormal community has a Ouija story, the board is often introduced to many more mundane haunted house or ghost tales as a Mac Guffin or often as the very denouncement to the tale itself. My Childhood was filled with many a boring tale of moving pint glasses and cold spots and ghostly voices ending with "...And then they found a Ouija board in the attic/cellar/outside lavatory..." guaranteed to elicit an "Oooooh" from many listening. In fact, many skeptics, myself included, held on to the mystique of the Ouija long after we've abandoned other supernatural beliefs.

So how does this pop-culture influence prevent believers from exposure to the truth, i.e: the non-supernatural explanation behind the Ouija board? It could be that the prevalence of the board in pop-culture and word of mouth tales means that many feel they don't actually have to do any actual research to learn everything they need to know about the board. Certainly any time it's mentioned on social media, believers come in droves to share diabolical warnings of demons, evil spirits and such nonsense, contacted through the board. Rarely is a dissenting skeptical or rational voice heard and often such opinions are drowned out or the comments are removed altogether. Again, as mentioned above, generally the only dissent is in the form of questioning the exact paranormal nature of the Ouija Board.

Youtube and various video hosting sites feature thousands of Ouija Board videos with comment sections dominated by credulous posts, many of which remark on what "rules" should be followed, what it's acceptable to do, what it's not acceptable to do. And of course, the dire warnings abound. Few commentators indicate what the source is for their information, many citing personal experience as their guide.

Even if a curious believer was to attempt to find more information about Ouija boards, a cursory Google search leads to more rules, guidelines and warnings. Try the question "Are Ouija boards safe?" for example. Not one of the sites from the first page features the word "ideomotor" once as the comparsion below shows.

The significance of this is that a believer curious as to whether a Ouija Board is dangerous or not simply won't be exposed to the correct answer: "No, they rely on the ideomotor effect." unless they are already aware of the ideomotor effect to begin with. Of course, a more direct question like "How do Ouija Boards work" will yield more rational results, but having the mindset to pose this question likely means the believer is on the way to rejecting the phenomena anyway.

You may have noticed the most popular result for the ideomotor-less search request, Wiki-how. Not a paranormal site. Would you expect at least some rationality from a seemingly sensible site that people usually visit to learn how to unclog a drain or repair an iPad? If so, you'd be mistaken. The Wiki-how page is filled with the usual rubbish that propagates paranormal pages. Here's a quick sample:

Is it any wonder that so much ignorance surrounds the Ouija board, when, for a better word, a mainstream site publishes such utter fucking horse-shit as "Sometimes, the spirit will end the session first. If it doesn't, you will need to move the pointer to the word GOODBYE. This is important. If you don't do this, you will leave the doorway to the spirit world open. Other spirits might use this to enter your house."? The page even has a question and answer section where visitors can request more nonsensical information.

Perhaps the mystique of the Ouija board remains partially because it gives some believers the opportunity to claim expertise. Pretending to have access to some arcane and forbidden knowledge, or some terrible secret gives some a sense of self-worth. They may even begin to believe this themselves. But a false sense of self-worth is not worth the propagation of ignorance. While these prognosticators issue their dire warnings of "Zozo" and other such rubbish the people who listen to them go misinformed, they spread this misinformation further.

In his Psychology Today article mentioned above Scott G. Eberle, Ph.D suggests an interesting experiment to demonstrate the ideomotor effect and expose how Ouija board works. It's very easy to do and stunningly effective if done correctly without the sitters knowledge:
"Try inviting the Ouija believer to wear a blindfold (I'd suggest having a test run before the blindfolding, then one with the blindfold and the board the right way up before flipping the board);(then quietly rotate the game a half turn. Then ask some mischievous questions of your own devising. (Be nice, now.) If your subject has memorized the position of the letters or the YES and NO answers (on purpose or not) I promise you amusing and instructive results."-Scott G. Eberle Ph.D, Psychology Today (2012)

 Every time you're at a social gathering and a Ouija board comes out, insist on trying this out. Let's get a few Ouija stories in circulation that show the Ouija board for what it truly is: a demonstration of a harmless physiological quirk. Let's change the discussion.

*I tried to find an example of this test performed by Penn and Teller for their show Bullshit a few years ago, unfortunately it appears to have disappeared from Youtube. Luckily Willie Kay posted a great alternative to the Bad Psychics FB page which is on the left. Thanks Willie.

I'm saying goodbye now, I don't want to leave a channel open.