How do Ouija boards work?
June 23, 2006 8:11 PM   Subscribe

So, how do Ouija boards work?

I just got to thinking about this after listening to "Notes on Camp" from This American Life. I had a Ouija board growing up--did you? Any creepy Ouija board stories? I'd play with my friends Kris and Sally during sleepovers in junior high and we'd always say to each other, "no, I swear I'M not pushing it. Are you SURE you're not pushing it?" And I swear--to this day--I wasn't pushing it. IsweartoGawd. So, if this is a subconscious-at-work thing here, how does it work?
posted by printchick to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (28 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
It's called the ideomotor effect.

Unless you really were pushing. Then it's called cheating. :)
posted by Humanzee at 8:21 PM on June 23, 2006


Kris was pushing it. Maybe Sally, but my money's on Kris.
posted by ook at 8:30 PM on June 23, 2006


Necromancy.
posted by aubilenon at 8:36 PM on June 23, 2006


Someone else is moving it. Or the ideomotor effect. Or, failing that, necromancy.
posted by puke & cry at 9:13 PM on June 23, 2006


Third vote for necromancy.
posted by Justinian at 9:28 PM on June 23, 2006


Chances are that even if it wasn't intentional, one of you wanted it to work so badly that 'pushing it' and 'feeling it move' were easily mistakable.
posted by Serial Killer Slumber Party at 9:59 PM on June 23, 2006


Upon reading Humanzee's link, yeah, pretty much that.
posted by Serial Killer Slumber Party at 10:00 PM on June 23, 2006


Definitely ideomotor. Ouija boards work even if you're the only person touching it. You should try it sometime. Freaked me right the f*ck out, even though I knew what was happening.
posted by CrayDrygu at 10:41 PM on June 23, 2006


Mitachlorians.
posted by hoborg at 12:03 AM on June 24, 2006


I definitely agree with the ideomotor effect. That's definitely part of it. But I could never explain this:

There was one summer when me and my friends used to mess around with these things. I would often "test" the Ouija board. I would take my hands off the...uh...thing you put your hands on, and then I would choose a random 3-5 digit number. Now these were not numbers that had any meaning so nobody could've guessed them. I also didn't write them down or anything so there was no record. It got the numbers right several times. In fact, if I remember correctly, it got it right almost every time I asked. And if did miss, it was close. And remember, this is with my hands off. So no ideomoter effect.

It freaked me the hell out. And I'm not one of these people that believes in ghosts and spirits and wants it to happen. It happened.

So, it is the ideomotor effect...

but it's also Necromancy.
posted by jahmoon at 2:25 AM on June 24, 2006


So you're saying the doohickey moved on its own?
posted by Atreides at 6:14 AM on June 24, 2006


I think it's much more likely that Kris or Sally moved it than a lonely spirit who had nothing better to do than to tell you who liked you. Not ruling it out, but it just seems odd.

Plus, I moved it for my friend. My technique was pretty good--she never caught on. She was really into it and kept a journal of everything she learned. It meant so much to her that even now, a decade later, I would hate to tell her the truth.
posted by wallaby at 6:36 AM on June 24, 2006


I had a friend in middle school that communicated with a spirit through Ouija often. She would do it by herself, and the pointer would move fast enough that I didn't think she could find the letters on her own at that speed. She would do it when she was alone sometimes (so I don't think she was showing off for us; and I really don't think she was crazy - in all other aspects, she was a very normal person). I could never explain it. The spirit (whose name was Wex) would sometimes ask me about things I hadn't told my friend about. It was not creepy - it was more like they were buddies.

I never asked her about it later on - and we lost touch. Other than when I watched her use it, I never believed in Ouija, but THAT was creepy.
posted by weiailei at 6:51 AM on June 24, 2006


Ditto wallaby. I moved it too. I fessed up though.
posted by MeetMegan at 8:21 AM on June 24, 2006


From the Wikipedia Ouija page:
Skeptic and magician James Randi, in his book An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, points out that when blindfolded, Ouija board operators are unable to produce intelligible messages. Magicians Penn & Teller performed a similar demonstration in an episode of their television show Bullshit!
posted by kirkaracha at 8:59 AM on June 24, 2006


HAve you considered that it might have been spirits trying to communicate with you?
People believe much crazier stuff all the time, you know.
posted by signal at 1:26 PM on June 24, 2006


Spirits aren't trying to communicate with you via a crappy board game, regardless of where that particular crazy belief stands on the spectrum of crazy-stuff-people-believe-all-the-time. As others have said, the Ouija board works by (a) people moving it consciously and lying about it or (b) people moving in unconsciously and not realizing they're in the driver's seat.

In both cases it is merely one's willingness to believe that allows you to attribute the simple movement of the pointer to anything magical or supernatural. Naviete and age seems to play a role in this, too; I don't see many people in this thread insisting that they saw a Ouija board do something magical or inexplicable in the office last week.
posted by BackwardsCity at 1:35 PM on June 24, 2006


Naivete. Naïveté. Stupid French words.
posted by BackwardsCity at 1:37 PM on June 24, 2006


A shover.
posted by OmieWise at 2:09 PM on June 24, 2006


As BackwardsCity noted, it is possible that people move the thing unconsciously and don't know they're doing it. There is a related possibility, whihc is that the person doing the pushing is dissociated in some form (such as a multiple personality) - and an "alter" is controling the thing much to the shock of the "person" who thinks s/he is driving. This is a pretty rare situation, but not one that never happens.
posted by sirvesa at 2:23 PM on June 24, 2006


Magicians Penn & Teller performed a similar demonstration in an episode of their television show Bullshit!

Funny sequence. IIRC, they blindfolded the makers of a board. It worked, since they were familiar with the board. Then they turned the board upside down without telling the "operators". The result made sense if the board was in its original orientation.
posted by trevyn at 3:03 PM on June 24, 2006


There is a related possibility, whihc is that the person doing the pushing is dissociated in some form (such as a multiple personality) - and an "alter" is controling the thing much to the shock of the "person" who thinks s/he is driving.

Excuse me?
posted by youarenothere at 3:40 PM on June 24, 2006


So you're saying the doohickey moved on its own?

No, what I meant was there were 2 or 3 of my friends on the board, but I was not. And it was still able to guess my number with an extremely high accuracy rate. Sorry bout that.
posted by jahmoon at 5:55 PM on June 24, 2006


jahmoon, I remember reading this article sometime ago written by a mathmetician/statistician about the distribution of "picked" numbers. You'd think it should be flat but it's actually an uneven distribution, ie. everyone usually thinks of the same few numbers in series. Tried to find it on Google but I couldn't come up with the right keywords.
posted by junesix at 9:19 PM on June 24, 2006


^I don't doubt that. I would love to read the article.

It's just totally crazy when you pick "9372" or something and then the Ouija board chooses "9372". And you don't even have your hands on the board!
posted by jahmoon at 12:41 AM on June 25, 2006


Jahmoon, here is what you said earlier:

I also didn't write them down or anything so there was no record. It got the numbers right several times. In fact, if I remember correctly, it got it right almost every time I asked.

Don't you think it's pretty likely that you're misremembering this story a bit? It was a long time ago, and when remembering weird events people have a tendency to remember "hits" but not "misses."

If you could go back in time that summer, you'd almost certainly discover that the percentage of hits was not nearly as impressive as you now remember. Maybe it only got the number you picked two times, or once. Maybe it got the number but mixed it up and you counted it as a hit anyway. Maybe you were teasing your friends (you didn't write the numbers down, there was no record) and have since forgotten that it was a prank.

Any number of these things could have happened, and all of them are more likely than the idea that Milton-Bradley markets a piece of wood that can read your mind.
posted by BackwardsCity at 8:05 AM on June 25, 2006


Trust me, I'm not remembering it wrong. It was no prank on my part. I was not counting "close" guesses as hits. It simply got the number right most of the times that I did this.

Now when I say "most of the time" please do not think that I sat there for hours just asking over and over again. There was probably 5 times througout that summer that we really got into the Ouija board. Each of those 5 times I maybe asked it to guess my number 2-3 times. So we are talking roughly 10-15 guesses total. Out of those 10-15 guesses I'd say it got somewhere around 10-12 right. (these are just rough estimations but it gives you a better idea of what I mean by "most of the time")

After that summer I don't think I've ever used a Ouija board again. I don't doubt that if I used one more often its success rate would drop considerably. But for whatever reason it was highly succesful that summer.
posted by jahmoon at 9:17 AM on June 25, 2006


Milton Bradley harnesses the souls of the dead.
posted by Falconetti at 2:17 PM on June 26, 2006


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