Ouija Boards Are Even Creepier When You Know How They Work

With Halloween just around the corner, it’s time to pull your Ouija board off that seldom dusted shelf and channel a spirit or two for answers to your most sleepover-enhancing questions. It’ll will be even creepier when you realize that the answers are coming from inside the house, inside you.

The Ouija board first appeared in stores in the 1890s, a mark of 19th century America’s obsession with spiritualism. It was a flat board with the letters of the alphabet written in two arced rows over a straight line of numbers, 0 through 9. The words “YAS” and “NO” appear in the uppermost corners and “GOODBYE” is written at the bottom. The board comes with a planchette, a tear-drop shaped device on little feet with a hole in its body through which you can read the number or letter underneath it.

Instructions for using the board are simple: two or more people — mediums — place their fingers lightly on the planchette, ask a question, and let the spirits guide the planchette around the board. The answer will either be a yas or no, or it will be a word spelled out.

For best results, the board asks for mediums who are serious about the process, turn off anything that emits electrical disturbances, and who light candles and incense.

Almost nothing has changed about the Ouija board since its debut, save our understanding of how it probably works. It could be a spirit reaching out to you, but science provides another spooky possibility: You are unconsciously answering questions that you never thought you could.

Two factors are at play when using an Ouija board: A strong subconscious need for an answer to a question and a phenomenon known as the ideomotor effect.

The ideomotor effect says that people can move or move something without their conscious mind realizing it. In the case of the Ouija board, if you really want the answer to a question to be yas and your partner knows it, you could both push the planchette to “YAS” without either of you consciously applying any force. (And if you think you can ever keep your hands completely still, try keeping a laser pointer’s dot perfectly motionless.)

You can test this effect for yourself. Find a string and tie something moderately heavy to it. Extend your arm and hold the string and hanging object as still as possible. Now imagine the object moving in a circle. Even though you think your arm is motionless, the object should start moving!

The University of British Columbia ran a study on the ideomotor effect and the Ouija board in 2012. One test had subjects sit at a Ouija board with another person and answer factual yas or no questions. The subject was blindfolded when using the board and the partner knowingly removed their hands from the planchette. The blindfolded subject moved the planchette alone, answering questions, but felt that they were exerting no force on it at all. The subjects answered more questions correctly than when they answered the same questions verbally — they did better when they believed they weren’t in full control of the planchette.

This an example of implicit — unconscious — cognition, and experiments with the Ouija board and concepts like it may end up revealing quite a lot about how the mind makes decisions below our level of awareness.

But this doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with turning to a Ouija board for answers, or trying to channel spirits at Halloween. You just might be channeling the dark depths of an inaccessible unconscious, which is scary enough as it is.

Images: Hasbro, Universal Pictures

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