Science of scams: Ouija board

I thought it was worth sharing this interesting video from the Science of scams team regarding the science behind why the glass moves during an ouija board session.

The same can be said for the glass used during a glass divination session, and the ideomotor response is the cause behind such tools of divination as dowsing rods and crystals too.

A typical response that I often come across from people who believe that ouija boards, or even glass divination or the other methods I mentioned work is that some times the movement or the glass/rods/crystals can be explained through the ideomotor response – but other times it cannot.

However, we have to look at this claim logically.

Anybody who is taking their research seriously and anyone thinking rationally will be using occams razor as a way to sum up the information they are presented with.

The idea that some cases of a glass moving can be explained by the ideomotor response but some cannot is a flawed way of thinking and could be classed as confirmation bias of that persons beliefs about the ouija board.

What we know for a fact is that involutary muscular movement causes the glass used in an ouija board session to move. Therefore, when trying to explain why the glass moved in a ouija board session we cannot rule this possibility out and, as it a more likely explination that say – a ghost moved the glass for which there is no proof, it is the one we have to go with. Simples.

Make sure you check out other videos from the Science of Scams team via their Youtube Channel. They rock.


About Hayley Stevens

Hayley Stevens is a podcaster, blogger, writer, public speaker and ghost geek. She likes tea, cake, sci-fi books and being a humanist.

Posted on October 29, 2009, in ghost, paranormal, rational, thoughts and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 39 Comments.

  1. Nice article as for me. It would be great to read a bit more about this matter.

  2. Interesting. I’ve always felt that the rational behind it was involuntary muscle movements. Especially by someone who believes in that kind of thing (paranormal activity, etc.).

    Stumbled upon your article, and decided to read it. Thanks for this, it’s an interesting thought I’d like to ponder.

    Best Wishes,


    • Hi Michael,

      I used to have beliefs in an after life and ghosts etc. but then I realised that the biggest flaw in paranormal research is people and their bias. I’m glad you liked the article – you can read more on our ‘Fact Vs Fiction pages’ about the ideomotor response and other paranormal myths.

      – Hayley 🙂

  3. Actually they won’t be using Ockham’s Razor. That principle is that all other things being equal between two models of explanation, the model that posits the fewest number of entities is the one to be prefered. All things aren’t equal between the two models so the principle of parsimony doesn’t apply.

    • Most rational researchers do actually use Occams Razor as a way to process information.

      Occams Razor = entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem
      Which roughly translates to mean: Entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity.

      This can be taken to mean that when you have two competing theories that make exactly the same predictions, the simpler one is the better.

      So when I wrote in the article above that when trying to rationalise why the glass would move in a ouija board session you would take the two options and go with the most likely…

      I.e. – Idea one being that it was involuntary movement vs Idea two which is that it was a spirit/ghost moving the glass.

      We know that is has been shown that the glass in an ouija board session can be moved by involuntary muscular movement and therefor that would be the most likely explination to go with.

      • Very smart experimentation used to understand what is going on with the Ouiji board, at least one would think, in most cases. The inference that science has the answer for everything isn’t true. Not yet. Otherwise we wouldn’t have to research any more. And the inference there can’t possibly be anything unseen EVER, is somewhat bold considering real scientists are still trying to come to grips with dark matter. But hey, all brimming confidence aside, it was a good video.

      • I think you misunderstand. The principle of parsimony isn’t that the simpler model is to be preferred. It is all other things being equal between two models, the model that is simpler in terms of positing explanatory entities is the one to be preferred.

      • I really don’t understand what you mean, Perry.
        As far as I know, in science, parsimony is preference for the least complex explanation for an observation.

  4. Well now. THAT was interesting, I never thought of ouija boards to be like that. Thanks for sharing this.

  5. Two thoughts about Ouija boards.

    The dude who invented it, do you think he knew exactly what he was doing? I do.

    I remember when I was a kid. We asked the Ouija board if it could move objects. We told it to move the pointer from one letter to another during the night. The board told us it would. My friend and I even pinky swore that we weren’t cheating. The next morning when I woke up I remember feeling very disappointed the pointer hadn’t moved.

    • I don’t know if they were aware of what a reaction the board would cause, it’s certainly probably one of the most successful games ever. Especially as some people are completely terrified of the boards which is rather irrational.

  6. Dang, the Ouija board was present at every childhood sleepover I ever attended. It’s just not a party until the light as a feather, stiff as a board palor trick accompanied by the Ouija board freak out takes place. It’s a one two knock out punch!

  7. When I was a kid and first heard about glass divination I was really impressed. I actually thought the glass would move by itself, but then people went on to put their fingers over it. Come on, I thought it would move without being touched! It was so frustrating, such an OBVIOUS scam. You don’t need science to figure it out, if it was a spirit pushing it why the hell the glass need to be touched in order to move? if there’s a fuckin’ spirit it should be moving without being touched! And that girl was quite stupid saying she was “barely touching it at some point”, come on, and what about the other 4 or so fingers touching it? how foolish and irrational people are…

    • It’s interesting what people will convince themselves of if it means that their account of things will fit with what they wish to believe. I wouldn’t say she was necessarily stupid, just misled and perhaps a little bit bias because of what had been suggested to her and her friends throughout the evening.

      As for the need to touch the glass, spiritualists and those people who are more inclined to believe that such methods are valid methods of spirit communication will tell you that the reason you need to touch the glass or planchette is so that any spirits can draw on your energy – which is complete nonsense of course.

      Thanks for visiting the site 🙂

  8. I sed to have SO much fun with these things. Can you say, “Slumber Party?!” 🙂

  9. Well we must have had some pretty darned crazy involuntary muscle movements when the glass flew off the table and crashed to the floor and then the table fell over! :)) Stay cynical

    • Wow, do you have this on video so that we can make our own decision rather than relying on your anecdotal account of events?
      Also, if you truly understand the world cynical you would understand that you have used it out of context here. 😀

  10. What a great article. Thank you so much for sharing!

  11. When you are cooking with a small child and you tell them,”Be careful, stay back it’s hot,” instinctively the child sticks his hand out to touch it. If you are not fast enough the child will get burned. People can be fascinated with all kinds of things that they are not supposed to do. The occult is one of them. Do not play with it, even to dabble, or you will quite literally get burned.

  12. This is extremely interesting. I’ve never believed in the power of Ouiji boards, but my mother has to some extent. She and my grandmother have told me a story, multiple times, of when my mom was in high school and she and her friends were playing with the Ouiji board. The dog wouldn’t stop barking and Mom swears every answer came true. When asked when she would marry, it gave her a date that came true. When asked who she would marry, it gave her my father’s initials. When asked how many children she would have, it told her three (and there are now three of us). I’ve always been a bit skeptical of it, perhaps thinking that she’s over-dramatized it over the years, but she’s never been one to exaggerate. I even have the aged paper she wrote the questions and answers on (I found it in a box in the attic a few years ago). I was hoping this video would explain how some of the answers are formed, but I was a little disappointed, obviously.

    What do you all think?

  13. I’m just going to add this because I forgot to check the “notify me of follow-up comments” thing. Sorry.

    • That’s an interesting story. My first instinct would be to say that perhaps she had an experience with the ouija board and over the years has falsely remembered what actually happened.

      I recently conducted a memory test with an audience of between 100 – 200 people.

      I asked the audience to memorise two lists of fifteen words and then write down as many as they could in three minutes.

      Psychologists Henry L. Roediger and Kathleen McDermott, experimenting with people’s responses to these lists, found that more than half of their experimental subjects remembered a word that wasn’t there on each list. Roediger and McDermott noted that people don’t just believe that they heard the word; they remember it quite vividly. Memory researcher Daniel L. Schacter reports that he has tried this experiment in lectures with audiences of nearly a thousand people–and has had 80 to 90 percent of his listeners remember false words.

      I found that over half of the audience that participated remembered the false words.

      Just food for thought.

  14. Re: the video, she’s a really cute girl. I wish her conclusions were more convincing.

    It’s shameful how little we know.

    Every time a door is opened, somebody tries to close it.

    • No, it’s not a case of somebody trying to close it at all. It’s actually a case of studying the claim being made (in this case, surrounding the movement of the planchette…) and seeing how it stands up to scrutiny.

      Skepticism isn’t about just blindly debunking things.

  15. Nice congrats on one of the top posts

  16. So if the movement is based on “expecation” how can you have a true experiment using cardboard on top of the glass? Would not the participants know they were a part of the experiment? Would that not affect the expectations and therefore the results of the experiment? If so, the results are flawed.

  17. Someone brought one of these to school once and it just felt evil.

    • Right, because of all the stories you’ve heard about the board.
      I have a ouija board and nothing terrible has ever happened with it.

      • So what have we learned?

        1) Experience doesn’t matter if it hasn’t been documented by your standards (this and post #18)
        2) Memories are false and can’t be trusted based on the ideas laid out in #24 where people given a list of random things they are not connected to or necessarily interested in and then are expected to remember them. They can’t, and therefore you can’t trust your mind to correctly remember details regarding who you would marry, or the number of children. And even though you may have told that story “multiple” times exactly the same, you didn’t remember the details accurately but have managed to remember the false details enough times to retell the story the same way every time following the initial telling.
        3) We should trust the minds of others who, using their minds, use science, created by minds (which are faulty as shown above).
        4) Your experience isn’t as important as the experience of the person in post #30.

  18. Napid79 – You have an interesting take on the points I have made and so I’ve quoted you so that I may answer each of your points individually.

    napid79 :
    So what have we learned?
    1) Experience doesn’t matter if it hasn’t been documented by your standards (this and post #18)

    I haven’t, at any point, said that personal experience doesn’t matter. I made comment that I would like to see a video of the occurence because personal testimony does not count as proof. Sure, what was reported to have happened may have convinced the person it happened to, but it doesn’t mean I am going to blindly accept another persons word as fact. I’m not saying the person in question is lying, I’m just saying that I won’t take anecdotal evidence as proof.

    napid79 :
    2) Memories are false and can’t be trusted based on the ideas laid out in #24 where people given a list of random things they are not connected to or necessarily interested in and then are expected to remember them. They can’t, and therefore you can’t trust your mind to correctly remember details regarding who you would marry, or the number of children. And even though you may have told that story “multiple” times exactly the same, you didn’t remember the details accurately but have managed to remember the false details enough times to retell the story the same way every time following the initial telling.

    Hehe. You’ve taken my point completely out of context to make your point, which is a shame. The point I was making is that we, most definetely and categorically know that people incorrectly remember details about things they have witnessed in the past.

    This is a well documented and researched fact. Just google it. From cases of people mis-remembering being abused as children, to people mis-remembering what happened at a air display collision. These things do happen and therefor we have to be very careful when dealing with eye-witness testimonies because we can never be 100% sure that the story that has been relayed to us is 100% accurate. Remeber, it is also easy to slightly twist what it is you saw through the power of suggestion from others.

    napid79 :
    3) We should trust the minds of others who, using their minds, use science, created by minds (which are faulty as shown above).

    Oh dear. Let me make this clear for you, and others reading this.

    You shouldn’t trust any one person just because of a position of authority they may hold. You should never blindly accept the word of somebody else as fact without researching it (not necessarily in every aspect of your life, but definetely with amazing claims that people are making that have little or no evidence.)

    What you should also take note of is the fact that science itself is always developing and reassesing the theories that have been reached in the past as new information is discovered. That’s the true key to remaining open minded – being able to adapt your ideas as new ideas are presented to you that might contrast with the ideas you already hold. The tricky bit is being able to decide if the new ideas are relevent and logical – which is where skepticism, rational thought and critical thinking come in really handy.

    It’s a shame that not everybody can adapt when presented with new information – especially when that information goes against what they believe. I may be wrong, but I get a strong impression that you do not approve of the rational tone throughout this article, and indeed, this website/blog. That’s okay, that’s your choice to make but please try dropping your bias and considering alternative explinations!

    Perhaps you would do well to watch the video about open-mindedness that can be found on our ‘rational thinking’ page…

  19. The Naked Cyclist

    Hmm things with the ideo effect is that woo sayers may say that is how it works?

    I was at an ‘investigation’ years ago and they were doing ‘table tipping’. I pointed out the possibility of people pushing the table with finger tips and suggested using the back of hands. Even then is was a wobbly old table and knees could be touching.

    Later I was talking to a woo person about this and they told me that ‘spirit’ works through the body and uses this ideomotor thang for dowsing, seance etc !!!

    Of course they may be right!! lol Perhaps there is a half truth in it, in that subconsciously a mind is using the ideomotor response involuntary to someones consciousness?

    Has anyone done any study on this stuff in the dark? There again if all that was recorded was gobble de gook or a crap U2 lyric the woo sayers would say that spirit is channeling through the corporeal body, thus needs the glass pushers eyes in order to facilitate communication in ‘our’ realm? hehe

    I would welcome such an experiment, especially in the total dark with the girls of the video…..hmmm or is that not a good idea 😉 lol

    • That would be an interesting study to undertake, it may have already been done, I’m not sure.
      I would say that anyone saying that ghosts use involuntary muscular movement to communicate with us is just moving the goalposts to suit their beliefs.

      • The Naked Cyclist

        I would have thought someone would have done it by now but it would be very dangerous in the dark with Yvette Fielding types throwing things about under cover of the darkness lol

  20. I’m a normal person- I don’t get carried away with what I want to believe. I tend to even give up my personal comfort and way of life in order to pursue truth.

    Having said this, I have a memory that I want to share of my friend Cara and I, we were around 13 years old at the time. Her whole family claimed they had a “walking-table” that would tap its leg to answer questions and would even scoot across the room. This is obviously hard to believe, even though her family was level-headed and had no reason to make up such a dramatic story. We sat down in the early evening one day at this table, in order to do what we thought was meditating in hopes of calling up some spirits or whatnot. Never in my life have I imagined seeing anything nor have I again seen anything remotely similar to what I experienced that day, but when I opened my eyes I remember seeing the corner of the table wave, much like a flag would in the breeze or like something under water. I didn’t stick around, but we both saw it and fled to the other room.

    In highschool I decided to do a research paper on ghosts. It was supposed to be on a highly debatable topic. Despite my researched methods and successful experiment/outcome I received a C from a religious teacher who told me I was messing with a dangerous topic. I went to an old army barracks with my dad and best friend in order to get pictures or evp from a tape recorder. With the few pictures I took I catpures a vortex, which is extremely rare to find a picture of online, and a few orbs. I was happy with the outcome.

    Given the circumstances of both my experiences, I feel the most likely answer is of unknown origin. I’ve always wished there were more reputable people that were interested in doing unbaised, documented research, but it’s still dismissed as non-sensical by the majority of modern society. This disappoints me, as I feel like there could be a lot to learn if people were more interested in truth than what society deems common sense.

    If anyone knows of any decent websites that have good documentation on their research, please post, as I’ve always been interested in looking into this topic further. Thanks.

  21. …from.what I know of ideometer response tests, it is not “known for a fact” that involuntary muscle movement causes the glass piece to move. However, it has been generally proven that such a thing as ideometer responses exist and furthermore, it is a rational assumption for which there’s evidence. Again, to my knowledge, no compelling notion can be derived from empirical , “known for a fact”

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