Be aware: The ideomotor effect

Do you believe in dowsing or the magic of Ouija boards?

I don’t want to be a downer but the magic in both comes from… you. In both, the spooky effect of mysterious movement is explained by a natural behavior called the ideomotor effect. This term was coined by William B. Carpenter in 1852 in his explanation for why the rods, pendulums, or sticks move during a dowsing demonstration. The participant is not even aware that ever so slight muscle movements cause the precariously held rods or easily influenced pendulum or planchette (on the Ouija board) to move.  Here’s a video explanation with dowsing rods.

Dowsing has been REPEATEDLY tested scientifically to see if it was some real sensory ability. It failed. It is clearly a result of the ideomotor effect. If you see or suspect how to react, you will react. If you are blind to the outcome, you will not react correctly.

Vietnamese army using dowsing rods.

Vietnamese army using dowsing rods.

This article by Barrett Dorko explains how the ideomotor effect is rarely discussed but easily demonstrated. Because it’s hard to accept that we are unintentionally influencing whatever is in our hands, we are easily fooled into thinking some amazing power is at play – the “spirits” are moving the planchette or the “energy” is guiding the rods to react.

Professor Chris French describes in this piece how a glorified dowsing rod was used as a bomb detector. (It was fake and as a result, people certainly died.) In facilitated communication, where the disabled are said to communicate through the hands of a helper, the ideomotor effect was behind false hopes that caused great tragedy. Such tragedy could have been prevented had observers been diligently aware of this indisputable explanation.

The test for the effect is easy – blind the person doing the moving so that they can not see the target(s). They will miss all the time. They need the visual cues for the effect to work. That is conclusive evidence that there’s no magic.

Dowsing with a pendulum - the ideomotor effect affects the movement of the object.

Dowsing with a pendulum – the ideomotor effect affects the movement of the object.

There are scores of people who insist dowsing and Ouija and facilitated communication is real. But hopeful belief does not make it true. There is a perfectly demonstrable and natural explanation for such things. It’s not practical or at all reasonable to invoke a mysterious other force.

The most popular manifestation of the ideomotor effect that many people have tried (and been fooled by), the Ouija board.

The most popular manifestation of the ideomotor effect that many people have tried (and been fooled by), the Ouija board.

The ideomotor effect is something EVERYONE should be aware of.

More indepth info:


One thought on “Be aware: The ideomotor effect

  1. Mark Hanna says:

    In January of 2014, I saw a frustrating article in my local newspaper about a homeopath who dowsed for remedies using a pendulum. When researching more into pendulum dowsing, I discovered the story of “Chevreul’s pendulum”. It was quite fascinating, and I ended up making a simple pendulum with some thread and a paperclip and trying it out with my flatmate at the time. I later tried it at work using a headphone, but as the wire is stiffer than thread it didn’t work quite as well.

    Basically, you take a pendulum (or make your own, which can be very easy as I just described), and put some marker down on a surface. You could use a coin on a table, for example. Then, hold the pendulum so it’s just a centimetre or so above the marker.

    Now, trying to hold your hand still (don’t try to hold the pendulum still by counteracting any movement you see, just try not to move it) and imagine it moving in a certain direction. That could be forward/back, left/right, clockwise, or counterclockwise.

    What you’ll probably find, and certainly what I found, is that even though you feel like you’re not moving your hand, the pendulum will start to move in the way you imagined. A very easy experiment to perform and it’s very interesting to be able to feel the ideomotor effect in this hands on way.


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