What ouija boards and military contractors have in common

The power of suggestion, your own expectations, and even your emotions can cause your body to move without you actively telling it to. This weird phenomenon is called the ideomotor effect. It's what makes ouija boards work and it's the mechanism behind $60,000 bomb-detecting devices that an American company was recently caught selling to the Iraqi government. Needless to say, the devices did not actually detect bombs.


  1. I thought oujia boards “worked” by being a complete hoax where someone’s moving the cursor. My brother and I used to try to push it at the same time.

    1. Not if you ask anyone who calls himself a “Facilitated Communicator,” one of the great scams of our time. They use Ouija Boards to “discover” that autistic children are actually eloquent, literate, and excellent spellers–as long as one of the FC clowns is there with their hand on the kid’s hand. Nova brought several of these phonies into a lab, and PROVED with childishly simple double-blind tests that there is ZERO credibility to this con. But they closed with a quote that explains why it persists anyway: an emotional mother insisting, “I KNOW Facilitated Communication works: my child said, ‘I love you, Mommy’!” Who can argue with logic like that?

  2. I love the fact that the first model was literally a novelty golf-ball finder. http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/british-businessman-sold-golf-ball-1750300

  3. Dowsing’s been proven statistically effective time and time again. If certain animals are able to detect the presence of water and metals underground then there is no reason to assume humans couldn’t have at least some ability in that regard, whatever the actual mechanism might be. Probably something to do with the ability to sense magnetic fields (well documented in animals) which would explain why it doesn’t work for materials which aren’t highly conductive. It seems that dowsing functions as a kind of bypass into instinctive, subconscious ability that is normally suppressed by conscious thought… which is a principle behind Ouija board and divinatory techniques in general.
    That being said, what this contractor did is incredibly irresponsible and is totally fraudulent, but not because of the obvious reason… This “hi-tech” dowsing rod is just a tool whose effectiveness is entirely dependent on the abilities of the person using it. And even in the best of cases it is not something even the most proficient dowser would bet his or her life on. It’s like selling people violins and telling them that owning one automatically bestows the ability to play like a professional symphony musician. On the other hand, this does not make violins themselves fraudulent and fake.

    1. To put it as politely as possible, that turns out not to be the case. Try reading wikipedia, which likes checkable facts:

      “A 1948 study tested 58 dowsers’ ability to detect water. None of them was more reliable than chance.[16] A 1979 review examined many controlled studies of dowsing for water, and found that none of them showed better than chance results.[5]

      More recently a study[17] was undertaken in Kassel, Germany, under the direction of the Gesellschaft zur Wissenschaftlichen Untersuchung von Parawissenschaften (GWUP) [Society for the Scientific Investigation of the Parasciences]. The three-day test of some 30 dowsers involved plastic pipes through which water flow could be controlled and directed. The pipes were buried 50 centimeters under a level field, the position of each marked on the surface with a colored strip. The dowsers had to tell whether water was running through each pipe. All the dowsers signed a statement agreeing this was a fair test of their abilities and that they expected a 100 percent success rate. However, the results were no better than chance.”

      Wishing doesn’t make things so. In 1974, I hired a dowser to help me decide where to dig my well. That little gesture toward open-mindedness cost me many hundreds of dollars, when the guy widely agreed to be the best dowser in Nova Scotia turned out to be a fraud. I should have tried to find even a single satisfied customer, first.

  4. This story adds unnecessary complexity and nuance to blatant fraud. There is no ideomotor effect unless you it with a ouija board. It’s sham electronics. There is no sense in which anyone, including the seller, would expect it to work, no matter what their view of the paranormal or unconscious influences. It’s a simple story of a fraudster committing fraud and hundreds or thousands of innocent people dying as a result, not from eccentric beliefs or bad science, but by premeditation, driven by greed and lack of empathy. The BBC covered the case and this is the first anyone has mentioned illusions or ideomotor effects.

  5. Am I the only one who read this paragraph and thought the most interesting question was what the word “you” is being used to refer to?

      1. I just meant I’m not sure what I think about the idea of “me” not including my own body, emotions, and expectations. Which part of my mind am I, exactly? I’m not disagreeing by any means, I just think it’s a good question.

Comments are closed.