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For centuries, people have asked questions to hand-held pendulums and interpreted their movements as responses from the divine. These movements occur due to the ideomotor effect, wherein priming or thinking of a motion causes muscle movements that end up swinging the pendulum. By associating particular swinging movements with “yes” and “no” responses, we investigated whether pendulums can aid decision-making and which personality traits correlate with this performance. Participants (N=80) completed a visual detection task in which they searched for a target letter among rapidly presented characters. In the verbal condition, participants stated whether they saw the target in each trial. In the pendulum condition, participants instead mentally “asked” a hand-held pendulum whether the target was present; particular motions signified “yes” and “no”. We measured the accuracy of their responses as well as their sensitivity and bias using signal detection theory. We also assessed four personality measures: locus of control (feelings of control over one’s life), transliminality (sensitivity to subtle stimuli), need for cognition (preference for analytical thinking), and faith in intuition (preference for intuitive thinking). Overall, locus of control predicted verbal performance and transliminality predicted pendulum performance. Accuracy was low in both conditions (verbal: 57%, pendulum: 53%), but bias was higher in the verbal condition (d=1.10). We confirmed this bias difference in a second study (d=0.47, N=40). Our results suggest that people have different decision strategies when using a pendulum compared to conscious guessing. These findings may help explain why some people can answer questions more accurately with pendulums and Ouija boards. More broadly, identifying the differences between ideomotor and verbal responses could lead to practical ways to improve decision-making.


This article was originally published in Neuroscience of Consciousness, volume 3, issue 1, in 2017. DOI: 10.1093/nc/nix014


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