A theory is only as good as the hypotheses it generates and the scientific results that flow from it. At the recent conference of the Parapsychological Association, James Carpenter and three colleagues (Christine Simmonds-Moore, Steve Moore and Ferrell Carpenter) presented the results of a second of two studies based upon First Sight hypotheses. One general hypothesis was that extrasensory “primes” (set up as targets in a study that were not available to the senses) should function in the same way that subliminal primes do: by making information more or less attractive when it is fully exposed to visual inspection later. The most common pattern is for subliminal exposures to make something seem a little more appealing later. This is called the Mere Exposure Effect (MEE). We were looking for an extrasensory MEE, along with the standard subliminal MEE.
We were also interested in trying to predict when people would respond to subliminal and extrasensory exposures positively (by liking more) and when their response would be negative (by liking something less). To predict subliminal effects we took some things that have been found to be important in previous research: Need for Cognition (positive), Need for Structure (negative), being oriented to subtle experiences (positive), and being prone to quickly become bored (negative). To predict extrasensory response we took some predictions from First Sight theory, some of which had also been supported by previous research. These included a person’s openness to experience, their vulnerability to anxiety, their belief that ESP was real or not, their tolerance for loosened boundaries with other people, and their level of creativity, among other things.
To test these things we asked people to stare at a computer monitor while things were flashed on the screen very briefly and then immediately masked by a complex pattern. This procedure prevented anyone from having a conscious awareness of what was being flashed. When the exposure was a subliminal one, the material flashed was a picture drawn from a standard set used in psychological research. When the presentation was extrasensory, a different picture was flashed, but it was also covered completely by an opaque black rectangle. In other words, the picture could not be seen even if were shown on the monitor forever! Like any good ESP target, it was completely unavailable in any way for the participants. Then after these viewings were completed, the participants were shown pairs of pictures and asked which they preferred. In each pair, one had just been exposed (either subliminally or extrasensorily) and one had not. A positive MEE would lead people to prefer the one that had been pre-exposed. A negative MEE would be the opposite.
In the first study we found that most of our predictions held true, particularly for extrasensory effects, and particularly when the participants were in a positive mood. To make things simpler and tidier for the second study, we reduced our finding to the strongest ones and predicted that they would be found again. When an effect can be replicated in a new sample, in an independent study, we can be more confident that the effect is a real one.
Based upon these strongest results, for subliminal effects we expected that response would be predicted by the person’s scores on Need for Cognition, interest in subtle experiences, and boredom proneness. For ESP, we thought that Openness to Fantasy, Tolerance for Closeness, and Vulnerability to Anxiety would be especially important. And we also expected that these effects would be strongest when participants were in a positive mood, and when the pictures were more emotionally important because they contained human content as compared to pictures about non-human things.
In this second study we found a clear pattern of results. All our predictions about ESP were confirmed strongly – but none of our predictions about subliminal effects were confirmed. We found virtually no evidence of a response to subliminal sensory exposures, but plenty of response to the extrasensory pictures. This may seem an ironic finding for people who think that extrasensory perception is unlikely to be real, or (as some have argued in the past), might just be subliminal sensory effects that experimenters were too careless to avoid. Ironic or not, it is what we found.
In a nutshell, we found that people are more likely to respond in a positive emotional way to extrasensory information if they are typically open to their inner life of fantasy, if they are relatively free from painfully disorganizing anxiety, and if they are comfortable with closeness with other people. On the other hand, people who are more closed to their fantasy life, more subject to painful anxiety and who draw tighter emotional boundaries with other people are likely to turn away from extrasensory material and unconsciously avoid it. And these considerations are more effective when the person is in a positive mood and the information in question is emotionally important. These are all the predictions of First Sight theory, and this replication adds to our confidence that these hypotheses are correct.