AppId is over the quota Psychologist Daryl Bem’s lifelong interest in the tricks of
professional mind readers has recently morphed into a scientific
investigation of ESP.
On a winter afternoon last March, Daryl Bem stepped out of the psychology department building at Cornell University, dressed in a red parka and a woolen hat to fend off the icy wind. As he walked along the pavement, navigating mounds of snow and taking care not to step onto the slushy street, the well-bundled social psychologist looked like a man who might prefer staying safe within the boundaries, a man who might shun risk—proving once again the danger of mistaking surface for substance. The 73-year-old Bem has defied the norm throughout his intellectual life, burning every dogma he’s encountered in the pyre of his logic. Now, in the twilight of his career, he has committed what may be his most daring act of sacrilege: claiming the existence of precognition, the ability to sense future events. Maybe this time, his colleagues say, Daryl Bem has gone too far.
Bem made his mark as a psychologist four decades ago by proposing the then radical idea that people adjust their emotions after observing their own behavior–that we sometimes develop our attitudes about our actions only after the fact. The proposition challenged the prevailing wisdom of the 1960s that things worked the other way around, that attitude was the engine from which behavior emerged. Though counterintuitive, Bem’s theory has held up to scientific scrutiny in dozens of studies and is now enshrined in psychology textbooks.
Over the years, Bem cemented his reputation as a rebel by floating other controversial theories on topics such as personality and sexual orientation. His own personal life was also decidedly unconventional. Despite being married to a woman, Bem never hid from his family the fact that he is gay. A few years ago, he explained this conjugal conundrum in an Internet posting (pdf) distinguishing between romantic love and sexual attraction, arguing that many individuals—like himself—fall in love with a person of the “wrong” gender.advertisement | article continues below
Even in the context of a career of irreverence, there was little to suggest that Bem would end up defending the possibility of extrasensory perception, or ESP, which most mainstream scientists consider unworthy of serious inquiry. Through most of his career, he was as dubious about telepathy (mind reading) or precognition (seeing the future) as any of his colleagues.
Then data changed his mind.
In 2010 Bem published the results of nine experiments he had conducted over seven years that, in his view, constituted strong evidence of precognition. The paper, titled “Feeling the Future,” came out in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, a peer-reviewed publication held in high esteem by psychologists. It drew a flurry of media attention, but Bem denies that he is being provocative for controversy’s sake. “When someone holds up a common belief and says it is obvious, I say, well, let’s reverse the thinking on that and see where it gets you,” he says. Even if that reversal violates the rule that cause comes before effect.
To the extent that the past can predict the future, Bem’s early life was awash in hints of a restless mind. Growing up in Denver, he inherited a nonconformist streak from his mother, who delighted in the disapproving looks she would get as she rode a man’s bike through the neighborhood. She went bowling in the 1930s when it wasn’t considered respectable for women to hang out at bowling alleys, and she fought to include an African-American woman on her bowling team at a time when such a thing was unheard of. “I grew up knowing that being slightly out of step is fun,” says Bem, who often smiles even when there is no obvious reason for mirth.
When Bem was 8, his aunt and uncle gave him a magic set and he was instantly hooked. Every Saturday he went to a magic shop in downtown Denver where a magician performed behind the counter. Bem began doing his own magic act at birthday parties, carrying his gear in a suitcase labeled Daryl the Great.
“When someone holds up a ?common belief and says it is obvious, ?I say, well, ?let’s reverse ?the thinking ?on that and ?see where it gets you.”
In high school he saw the vaudeville mentalist Joseph Dunninger on television, seeming to read minds. Searching through a pile of magic catalogs, Bem found an ad that read: “You too can do what Dunninger does. Send for this manuscript.”
Soon Bem was performing mentalist tricks on stage, like guessing correctly what somebody in the audience had eaten for dinner the previous night, based on tangible clues that had nothing to do with psychic skill. What he particularly loved about mentalism was how convincingly magical it seemed. The audience was left wondering if there was something paranormal going on. “Maybe it’s a trick—but you’re not sure,” he says.
Bem studied physics at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, and in 1960 went on to MIT for graduate work. At the time, MIT students were encouraged to take classes outside their major field of study. Most of the other physics students took math courses. Bem chose psychology, and the first class he took focused on race relations. What interested him most was an examination of segregation in the South. Government officials defending segregationist policies argued that it wasn’t possible to change people’s behavior without changing their hearts and minds first. Until whites felt more charitable toward blacks, the officials argued, there was no point in desegregating water fountains and other facilities. But studies in a number of Southern cities showed this was not true, Bem noticed. “When you did a survey asking if it would be OK to desegregate the schools, people were almost unanimously opposed,” he says. “Then a court decision would come down; they did it, and then six weeks later the survey showed that people had changed their minds.”
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