What Makes a Good Psi Target? Three Studies of Forced-Choice ESP Varying Target Emotionality and Complexity

Article excerpt

What makes a good psi target? Anecdotally, it seems that a disproportionate number of spontaneous psychic experiences are associated with emotionally unpleasant events, such as someone dying or being injured. If we look to the major collections of spontaneous cases, such as the Phantasms of the Living collection of 712 cases (Gurney, Myers, & Podmore, 1886/1970), the Sannwald collection of 1000 cases (Sannwald, 1961), and L.E. Rhine's collection of over 10,000 cases (e.g., Rhine, 1969), a similar pattern is found. These three collections have been systematically analyzed by Schouten (1979, 1981, 1982). Schouten (1979) found that 79.2 % of cases in the Phantasms collection concerned death or serious illness, while only 10% of the cases concerned trivial incidents. In the Sannwald collection (Schouten, 1981) the proportion of cases involving death or serious illness or accident was lower (62.4%), but still much greater than the number of trivial cases (14.1%). Similarly, 65.2% of the representative sample of 15% of L.E. Rhine's cases analyzed by Schouten (1982) concerned death or serious accident, compared to 10.8% of trivial cases. These crisis cases are more "newsworthy" and memorable than the more trivial and meaningless instances of ESP. Schouten's analyses also demonstrated that nonserious cases were more easily forgotten than serious cases and that trivial cases were usually sent in by the percipient rather than by others more tangentially involved (suggesting that usually trivial events are not seen as worth reporting, unless one is personally involved). So as one might expect, reporting bias can to some extent account for the preponderance of cases involving unpleasant events.

When working with existing case collections, it is difficult to partial out this reporting bias to get a good estimate of the true proportion of serious cases. Moving to the laboratory setting, however, researchers have been able systematically to compare psi scoring for emotionally unpleasant and neutral targets while quantifying any reporting bias. Reviews have found that there are good theoretical reasons to expect moderately emotional material to make good ESP targets (Watt, 1989), and researchers often believe emotional targets to be superior to neutral targets; but in fact the experimental findings are inconclusive both with free-response methods (Delanoy, 1989) and forced-choice methods (Palmer, 1978; Palmer, 1982). There does, however, seem to be some agreement on what target dimensions may be important - for instance, the degree of complexity, the degree of familiarity/novelty, and the degree to which the target is dynamic (e.g., a film clip) or static (e.g., an art print postcard) (Honorton et al., 1990).

As part of my interest in what makes a good ESP target, this paper reports the results of three studies that compared forced-choice ESP scoring for emotionally unpleasant and neutral targets. The studies were conducted as part of a broader PhD project examining the relationship between subliminal perception and ESP (Watt, 1993a). Participants took part in two testing sessions, the first of which measured subliminal perception and the second of which measured ESP; the present report will be limited to a consideration of the success of the different kinds of ESP targets used in the second, ESP session. Details of the subliminal-psi comparisons are reported elsewhere (Watt, 1993a; Watt & Morris, 1995), as are details of analyses of participants' mode of responding to each ESP target ("impression" vs. "guess") (Watt, 1993a; Watt, in press).


Before describing each of the studies individually, I will describe the main shared characteristics of the three experiments. All participants were volunteers who had been recruited from talks or from articles in the media, or who had contacted the parapsychology unit on their own initiative, out of their interest in the subject. It is perhaps worth noting that, unlike many experiments in psychology and parapsychology, in these experiments only a small number of participants were undergraduate students; rather, a wide variety of ages and occupations and interests were represented in the sample. …


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