Academic journal article The Journal of Parapsychology

Reactions to an Unseen Gaze (Remote Attention): A Review, with New Data on Autonomic Staring Detection

Academic journal article The Journal of Parapsychology

Reactions to an Unseen Gaze (Remote Attention): A Review, with New Data on Autonomic Staring Detection

Article excerpt

Have you ever had the feeling that someone was staring at you from behind and, upon turning around, found you were correct? From time to time, most of us have had such a feeling, which appears to be a common part of the human experience. In surveys conducted in California (Coovet, 1913) as early as 1913, 68% to 86% of respondents reported having had the feeling of being watched or stared at on at least one occasion, and a more recent Australian survey (Williams, 1983) placed the figure at 74%. In a survey of San Antonio respondents recently completed as part of the present project, the figure was found to be approximately 94%.

Despite its widespread occurrence and familiarity, the staring experience has been subjected to surprisingly little scientific scrutiny. Is the presumed ability to detect an unseen gaze merely a superstition, a cultural myth without real substance, an overinflation of coincidental occurrences, or a response to subtle sensory cues? Or, alternatively, could the experience be a valid indicator of an exceptional yet poorly understood human capability?

In 1898, Titchener published a short article in which he addressed the "feeling of being stared at." Tichener mentioned that he had conducted a series of laboratory experiments at Cornell University on this topic and that the experiments had yielded negative results; unfortunately, he reported no details regarding those experiments. Titchener indicated that such experiments "have their justification in the breaking down of a superstition which has deep and widespread roots in the popular consciousness". He attempted to provide a psychological interpretation of the prevalence of the "staring" belief based on nervousness in social situations, attracting the attention of the starer, turning, and noticing the starer's gaze.

In 1912-1913, experimental research on staring detection was carried out by Coover at Stanford University. Coover (1913) reported the results of a study in which each of 10 subjects made 100 guesses of whether he or she was being stared at by an experimenter seated behind the subject in the same room; the subject kept his or her eyes closed and "shaded with one hand." The staring versus nonstaring schedule was determined by tossing a die. The duration of a staring or nonstaring trial was 15-20 sec; the 100 trials were distributed over three to four hourly sessions that were spaced one week apart. Overall, the subjects' accuracy of guessing did not depart significantly from chance. Coover discussed qualitative differences in the subjects' imagery and subjective impressions that he thought were correlated with the degree of confidence or certainty of their guesses, but did not substantiate his conclusions with quantitative data. He interpreted his findings as support for Titchener's claim that the belief in staring detection was empirically groundless.

In 1959, Poortman of Leyden University (Netherlands) reported a preliminary staring detection study in which he himself served as a subject for 89 trials (distributed over a 13-month period) and attempted to guess whether or not he was being stared at by another experimenter. The same person served as experimenter throughout the tests. Poortman was seated in a separate room adjoining that of the starer, with his back to the starer. Staring and nonstaring trials were of 2 to 5 min duration and were randomly scheduled by means of card shuffles. Poortman achieved a 59.55% accuracy rate which he called "suggestive and highly promising. "A reanalysis of Poortman's data by the present authors yields a one-tailed p = .04. Poortman also provided several interesting observations of psychological conditions that appeared, in his own experience, to facilitate or to impede accurate staring detection.

In the Coover and Poortman experiments, test conditions were poorly controlled. The subject and the starer were in the same room or in open adjoining rooms, and the subject could have discriminated staring from nonstaring periods by means of subtle, unintentional auditory cues. …

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