Twitter, experimental psychology and not believing everything you’re told

2 June 2009 by Noah Gray, posted in Uncategorized

Richard Wiseman and New Scientist have teamed up to conduct the first ever mass experiment on Twitter. It all started last week when Dr. Wiseman announced his intentions of carrying out a “mystery experiment” on Twitter. All an individual had to do to participate was to “follow him” (essentially formally subscribing to his updates, for the uninitiated.) Since then the followers of “@richardwiseman” dramatically increased from ~1,500 prior to the announcement to just under 5,000 by the time the first significant actions in the experiment were taken yesterday (this number continues to rise and was ~6,535 at the time of posting this.)

So what is the experiment??? A test for the existence remote viewing. You know, ESP kind of stuff…(cont.)


From Richard Wiseman’s blog:


I am pretty skeptical about psychic ability, but the American government spent millions of dollars examining remote viewing and lots of people believe that it is a genuine ability.

Well, at 3pm (UK time) each day, I will travel to a randomly selected location. Once there, I will send a Tweet, asking everyone to Tweet about their thoughts concerning the nature of the location. Thirty minutes later, I will send another Tweet linking to a website that will allow everyone to view photographs of five locations (the actual location and four decoys), think about the thoughts and images that came to them in the thirty minutes before, and vote on which of the five they believe to be the actual target location.

If the majority of people select the correct target then the trial will count as a hit, otherwise it will count as a miss. There will be trials at 3pm on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday this week. Three or more hits in four trials will be seen as supporting the existence of extrasensory perception.

Yesterday was an informal trial to test the technology. Dr. Wiseman went to a location, tweeted to his “twongregation” that he had arrived and then asked them to channel their thoughts to visualize where he was standing. He then invited those participating to send tweets describing their thoughts.
My answer, plus a sampling of a few of my favorites:
Twitter experiment
Searching for “@richardwiseman” on the specific date of June 1 will also give you more to look at. If you are having trouble reading this, please click here for a larger version
It turns out that Dr. Wiseman was “here”:
Test Location - Twitter Experiment
Who got it right??? Not me… Dr. Wiseman later posted some additional points regarding the trial and the experiment. That can be read here. For the record, the location will be chosen using a random number generator that generates true random numbers based on atmospheric noise.
The real experiment starts today at 15:00 London time (repeated 3 more times by Friday). This has certainly rustled up a lot of attention in the media, with more to follow, I’m sure. On Twitter, you can search the tag #twitterexperiment for additional discussion pertaining to this subject.
However, the minute I saw this announcement, I put on my experimental psychology hat and began to ponder what was really going on here. See, in my experience, psychology trials are usually testing something other than what the researcher is telling the subjects because in order to acquire non-biased results, the subjects can’t be aware of what is actually being tested. If they are aware, they may attempt to influence the outcome, even unconsciously. Thus, distractors are to experimental psychology as lures are to fishing. I felt like the experiment had actually begun the moment Dr. Wiseman sent his first tweet inviting others to follow him and participate, as well as encouraging all to “RT” the message (this means “re-tweet”, the Twitter equivalent of forwarding).
If I am correct, then what exactly is Dr. Wiseman testing? Well, first I thought that it would have something to do with correlations between the remote viewing predictions and the answers to the questions regarding belief in the paranormal; i.e., those participants who either believed in psychic abilities, or even believed that they themselves possesses said abilities. But this seems too easy, and Dr. Wiseman also kind of gave this one away in a partial throw-away statement in the round-up blog post assessing the informal trial by saying:


In addition to getting an overall result, we can also carry out post hoc analyses looking at people who believe in the paranormal vs skeptics, men vs women, etc..

And obviously this experiment will not be definitive regarding the existence of remote viewing since a major flaw in the design is actually, the crowd-sourcing. I’m no psychic expert, but it is my understanding that psychics believe they are extremely special and would do little more than laugh at this mass effort since, to them, it is blatantly clear that only a select few within the population possess special powers. Dr. Wiseman, who has been involved with debunking/questioning the paranormal for some time now, surely knows this, yet is proceeding. This is Twitter, so perhaps it has something to do with social interaction? Could be. Both Dr. Wiseman and New Scientist were very enthusiastic about promoting the RTing of the post, but of course, they needed more followers to garner statistical power, not to mention notoriety. So I began to back away from this proposed topic until I was discussing the experiment with Hysell Oviedo and she mentioned:
“Well this is stupid, you don’t have to follow him in order to participate.”
BINGO! You don’t have to follow him. The times for the initiation of the experiment have been announced on his blog, as has the protocol. All one has to do is think about the issues and do the psychic thing at 15:00 London time, and then go to the official site to vote. Sure, the site URL will be tweeted, but unless it is switching every day, it was publicly revealed yesterday and will likely be the same. Even if a participant forgot the address, all s/he would have to do is quickly look at Dr. Wiseman’s profile, and find the tweet containing the URL. No following needed. Okay, I still don’t know exactly what is being measured/scrutinized even if this crazy theory is correct, but let’s just say that I definitely won’t be surprised when the results are revealed next week and we have learned a little something more than the fact that a sampling of Twitter users do not possess group abilities in the paranormal. In fact, this last statement is the only guarantee that I will give with regards to what may come out of the first mass Twitter experiment.
Stay tuned…


10 Responses to “Twitter, experimental psychology and not believing everything you’re told”

  1. Richard P. Grant | Permalink

    So… by reading this blog, we’re no longer unbiased, so shouldn’t take part…?

  2. Noah Gray | Permalink

    I’m not sure how one can be biased in a study that is asking which of 5 potential places Dr. Wiseman was located. Sounds more like random image selection to me than psychology. Which is exactly the point. Perhaps a distraction? I’m just throwing out the crazy notion that there is a good chance a good chunk of the experiment is already over, before anyone even realized it. If thinking that there are other issues being assessed will cloud or influence your ability to “see” where Dr. Wiseman is, then yes, I don’t recommend participating.

  3. Kristi Vogel | Permalink

    Perhaps the goal of the experiment was to determine how many people would write blog posts about the experiment.

    Aim 1A. Characterize the variety of blog platforms on which posts appear.

    Aim 1B. Characterize the comments that appear following blog posts identified in Aim 1A.

    Aim 1C. Perform microarray analyses on samples of bloggers and commenters.

    Aim 1D. Quantitative real time PCR to confirm differentially expressed genes identified in Aim 1C.

  4. Matt Brown | Permalink

    Interesting, interesting. My hunch, though, is that using Twitter to gather participants for a trial is novel enough in its own right to make this worth his while, and that what we see is what we get. The cynic might also observe that this is a great way to boost your number of followers – an end in itself for many people.

  5. Richard P. Grant | Permalink

    So, what happened?

  6. Mike Fowler | Permalink

    Don’t seem to be any recent updates on his blog.

    My guess: remote viewing psychic abilities were not found to be channelled through multiple choice questionnaires.

    {drumroll}
    Luckily, this doesn’t rule out other mediums…
    {tcha-boom!}

  7. Noah Gray | Permalink

    Shockingly, no evidence for remote viewing by the Twitterati. The only other real take-home message? That thousands of people are willing to participate in a Twitter-based experiment. Sounds like a result from Dr. Obvious, if you ask me…

  8. Noah Gray | Permalink

    Additional analysis from the Twitter experiment reveals that even just pooling those who believed in psychic abilities and were extremely confident in their location choices did not produce a single correct answer on the population level…

  9. Richard P. Grant | Permalink

    Shocking.

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