Testing Psychics

This work involves investigating people claiming to possess psychic abilities, including psychic detectives, mediums, astrologers, healers and animal communicators.

Some of this research is described in Prof Richard Wiseman’s book Deception and Self-deception: Investigating Psychics. Prof Wiseman and the late Prof Robert Morris (University of Edinburgh) also co-authored Guidelines for Testing Psychic Claimants, a manual providing advice to help researchers resolve the problems that most frequently occur when testing alleged psychics.

Some of Prof Wiseman's work in this area is described below.

Investigating macro-PK in India
Professor Erlendur Haraldsson (University of Iceland) and Prof Wiseman travelled to India to investigate religious leaders claiming to materialise objects in their bare hands. They observed and filmed various materialisations under informal conditions, but none of the religious leaders managed to produce phenomena under controlled conditions.

Financial astrology
Prof Wiseman and The British Association for the Advancement of Science asked a professional investor, a financial astrologer and a five-year old child to invest a fictional £5000 on the FTSE100. The investor chose shares on the basis of his experience, the astrologer based her decisions on the ‘birthdate’ of companies and the child chose her shares randomly. The child lost the least amount of money and the financial astrologer made the largest losses.

Psychic detectives
Psychic detectives claim to be able to help the police prevent and solve serious crimes. Prof Wiseman compared three psychic detectives with three students who did not claim to be psychic. All six participants were shown objects that had been involved in one of three crimes, and were asked to describe the nature of the crimes. Formal testing involved them being shown a list of statements, and having to match the statements to the crimes. Results from this formal test revealed that the psychics were no more accurate than the students, and that neither group performed at above chance levels.

The ‘psychic’ pet phenomena
Prof Matthew Smith (Liverpool Hope University) and Prof Wiseman conducted four experiments examining the claim that a Yorkshire terrier named Jaytee could psychically detect when his owner was returning home. The results of these experiments did not support the existence of any paranormal communication between the owner and her pet. This research was widely reported in the media and published in The British Journal of Psychology. Dr Rupert Sheldrake has also carried out similar investigations and believes that his results support some form of psychic communication between Jaytee and his owner. Prof Wiseman and Dr Sheldrake have commented on each other’s findings in a series of academic articles.

For centuries people have walked over burning hot coals without harm. Scientists claim that this is possible because the low conductivity between the base of the foot and the coals, combined with the relatively short length of the bed of coals (typically 12-15ft), results in little heat being transferred to the foot. However, some firewalking practitioners claim that their success is due to their ability to place a paranormal force-field around their body during the walk. Prof Wiseman collaborated with the BBC to design an experiment to test this idea. The BBC contacted several firewalkers who supported the paranormal interpretation of the phenomena, and asked them if they were willing to walk across a 60 ft bed of burning embers. Three of the firewalkers agreed to attempt the walk on BBC1’s Tomorrow’s World programme, but jumped off the coals after walking about 20 ft, suffering burns to their feet.

External resources

BBC Online article describing Prof Wiseman's studies into mediumship

Guardian Unlimited article on mediumship and science

Selected references

Haraldsson, E. & Wiseman, R. (1996). Two investigations of ostensible macro-PK in India. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 61(843), 109-113.

Haraldsson, E. & Wiseman, R. (1995). Reactions to and an assessment of a videotape on Sathya Sai Baba. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 60(839), 203-213.

O'Keeffe, C. & Wiseman, R. (2005). Testing alleged mediumship: Methods and results. The British Journal of Psychology, 96(2), 165-179.

Wiseman, R. & Haraldsson, E. (1995). Investigating macro-PK in India: Swami Premananda. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 60 (839), 193-202.

Wiseman, R. & Morris, R. L. (1995). Guidelines for Testing Psychic Claimants. University of Hertfordshire Press: Hatfield, UK (US edition: Prometheus Press: Amherst, USA).

Wiseman, R., & Morris, R.L. (1994). Modelling the stratagems of psychic fraud. European Journal of Parapsychology, 10, 31-44.

Wiseman, R., Smith, M., Milton, J. (1998). Can animals detect when their owners are returning home? An experimental test of the 'psychic pet' phenomenon. British Journal of Psychology, 89, 453-462.

Wiseman, R., & West, D. (1997). An experimental test of psychic detection. The Police Journal, 70(1), 19-25.

Wiseman, R. (1997). An Experimental Test of 'Psychic Diagnosis'. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 61(847), 397-398.

Wiseman, R. (1997). Deception and self-deception: Investigating Psychics. Prometheus Press: Amherst, USA.

Wiseman, R. (1992). The Feilding Report: A reconsideration. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 58 (826), 129-152.