What do Yawns, Poker Tells, and Ouija Boards have in Common?
November 23, 2013
The answer is actually quite a bit. But first, a short update on our project.
Its been a while since the last post! Things have been very busy around the project, with our first crowdfunding campaign coming to a close. It does seem that we didn't make the funding on this go round (maybe we were a bit too ambitious with our funding goals) but thats not all too surprising given it was our first try, and just like tipping over a refrigerator, we are hoping to come back with enough momentum the second go round to tip this sucker over! We'll be back with our second run in around a couple months with several modifications to our campaign that we hope will get people more excited about supporting science (e.g. you'll get stuff for your support!!).
In any case, over the past few weeks some people may have noticed several major updates to our website layout as well as a ton of content added to our 'How Ouija Works' page which may come off as a bit intimidating to those who aren't used to reading psychology papers. To address this issue we thought a short blog post would be a good idea elaborating on what exactly it is that makes ouijas move? the surprising culprit behind those movements happens to be the same one responsible for an extremely familiar human habit - the contagious yawn.
Sometimes all it takes is seeing the word "yawn" to trigger the action the word describes. Sometimes it doest even take the word, simply the thought of yawning can trigger the action (or in my case the fear of yawning while talking to someone often causes exactly that to happen). Like many of the most basic human functions, it is surprising to learn that nobody has a really solid explanation of why yawns are contagious. Even more surprising is that no one has any solid idea of why people yawn in the first place - there are plenty of theories but the question of why they are useful and why we evolved the tendency to yawn is still a baffling mystery.
By no means does our lab offer any insight into why we evolved to yawn, or even why they are so contagious, but yawning is an amazingly familiar example of a concept at the heart of why ouijas move - unconscious actions. I doubt anyone would claim that the reason yawns are contagious is because people see a yawn and think "oh, that looks cool, I think I'll yawn now too." Rather it is an involuntary action which many people only realize is happening when it's too late. These types of actions are called 'Ideomotor actions' which is a very simple concept. A contagious yawn is triggered by the idea of yawning; as soon as you have the idea in your head you involuntarily begin to yawn - this action is an automatic motor response which can be triggered whether we want to yawn or not. These are the two roots of the word ideomotor: 'idea' and 'motor' and the term means an action involuntarily caused simply by thinking of some idea.
This same phenomenon is at the root of poker tells: some people will remember the scene from the recent James Bond movie Casino Royale (greeeat bond film) where Bond gets tricked into thinking he has found a poker tell from his opponent and ends up losing a bunch of cash (courtesy of the British taxpayers).
Some people are surprised to learn that poker tells aren't entirely made up for movie purposes, but actually pro poker players are often very careful about keeping their 'poker face' on and hiding any cues they may give their opponents as to what kind of hands they are holding. Why is this an issue? If every action we made was directed by us consciously, then why would we be worried of making an action which revealed our hand? The reason is that not all the actions we make are conscious actions, and that much like contagious yawning, when we have an idea like 'oh thats a greeeeeat hand!' then we unconsciously trigger some motor mechanisms which a clever player can learn to track and read as an indicator of what kind of a hand we've been dealt.
Crazy right! Its like we don't have control of our own bodies, a tough theory to grasp but one with enough evidence to make a three season long television drama primarily about. This show is 'Lie to me' and while its scientific support is at times flimsy, it does do a good job of bringing to our attention all the thousands of unconscious movements we make every day which betray exactly what ideas are in our minds. In the case of the show, it focuses on unconscious movements triggered when people lie, a very small part of all the unconscious movements we produce every day.
These are great examples of how people can use our own unconscious movements to learn more about what we are thinking - but it seems like these are only useful to other people. The bigger question here is; why do we even have unconscious movements like this in the first place? Truth is there is no cut and dry answer to that question, but there are several very strong theories, one of which we are directly investigating through our experiments using the unconscious movements triggered when playing the ouija game. Stay tuned for part two of this blog post! (here is a hint to keep you interested: its the same thing responsible for traffic flowing smoothly and shampoo amnesia???)