by Rupert Sheldrake
Skeptical Inquirer (2000), March/April, 58-61
From... Research on the Feeling of Being Stared At

A variety of surveys have shown that most people believe they can feel unseen stares (Sheldrake 1994). In his article "Can we tell when someone is staring at us?" (March/April 2000 SI) Robert A. Baker, a CSICOP Fellow, dismissed this belief as false. "Skeptics.... believe that it is nothing more than a superstition and/or a response to subtle signals from the environment." (Baker 2000, p. 40). He claimed to provide empirical evidence to support his presuppositions.

Baker's first demonstration
For his first demonstration Baker selected people who were engrossed in eating or drinking, watching TV, working at computer terminals or reading in the University of Kentucky library. He unobtrusively positioned himself behind them and stared at them. He then introduced himself and asked them to fill in a response sheet.

Baker's prediction was that people engrossed in an activity would "never" attend to a sensation of being stared at. Thirty-five out of 40 people checked the expected response: "During the last 5 minutes I was totally unaware that anyone was looking at me". But two people reported that they had been aware that they were "being observed and stared at" and three reported they felt something was "wrong." Baker noted that while he was staring at these very subjects, "All three stood up, looked around, shifted their position several times and appeared to be momentarily distracted on a number of occasions."

The answers of these five people went against Baker's prediction, so he retrospectively introduced another criterion. He ruled that subjects should be able to say where he had been sitting when he was looking at them. None could. He regarded their inability to do so as a "good reason to believe that they were... not aware that they were being viewed" (Baker 2000, p. 40). But this begs the question. A sensitivity to being stared at does not necessarily imply an awareness of the position of the starer.

To complete his analysis, Baker "discarded" the results from the two people who said they knew they had been stared at. He regarded them as "suspect" because one claimed she was constantly being spied on, and the other claimed he had extrasensory ability. But if the sense of being stared at really exists, people with paranoid tendencies might be more sensitive than most (Sheldrake 1994), and so might people who claim to have extrasensory abilities.

Baker's second demonstration
In Baker's second demonstration subjects were looked at from behind by Baker himself, together with a student, at random intervals, and asked to say when they thought they were being looked at. They were told that they would be stared at for five one-minute periods during a 20-minute trial. In accordance with his expectations, he found that their guesses were no better than chance.

Why were these results so different from the consistently positive and statistically significant effects obtained by myself and others, even when subjects were blindfolded and separated from starers by closed windows (Sheldrake 2000)? There are several relevant differences in procedure.

In my own experimental design, in a series of 20 trials there were more or less equal numbers of control and looking trials, whereas in Baker's there were 15 control and only 5 looking one-minute periods. This peculiar feature precluded a straightforward statistical analysis of the results. Each subject was allowed only five guesses. If guesses were entirely random, misses would be three times more probable than hits.

In my experiments each trial lasted only about 10 seconds, but Baker used 60-second trial periods. In preliminary tests, I found that subjects gave the highest percentage of correct guesses when they were asked to guess quickly, without spending much time thinking about their response.

Baker also introduced three different sources of distraction for his subjects:

1. Beside each time on the specimen score sheet shown in Baker's paper there was a pair of unexplained numbers, for example: 0801 1&2; 0802 2&3 (Baker, 2000, p. 38). I wrote to Baker to ask for a clarification, but his reply confused matters further. He said that the times shown on his specimen time-sheet "were not on the subject's time-sheet at all -- since they, of course, would differ from subject to subject. The 1&2 indicates the first minute, the numbers 2&3 indicate the second minute of the time-period, etc."

If I had been one of Baker's subjects, I would have been at a loss to understand his instructions. If I thought I was being stared at, to start with I would have had to calculate from the clock in which minute this happened. Then I would have had to decide where to write my response. Say I felt I was being stared at in the seventh minute, would I write my response on the line labeled 6&7 or on the line labeled 7&8?

2. The instructions published by Baker are self-contradictory. He says that the subjects were told that there would be five one-minute staring periods. Yet the specimen instruction-sheet states that subjects would be stared at "five times for two minutes each" . Baker now concedes that this was an error (Baker, personal communication, May 27, 2000). To confuse matters further, in his article the one-minute staring periods are also described as "five-minute periods" (Baker 2000, p.38).

3. Not only did Baker instruct his subjects to guess when they were being stared at, but they were also asked to compare their guess with their responses in other periods so that they could change their previous guesses, if they wanted to. This instruction might well have helped to distract subjects still further from their immediate feelings.

Like Baker, I predict that those who follow his experimental methods (including his ambiguous instructions) are likely to replicate his negative results. But I also predict that my own positive results should be replicable by those who use similar methods to my own (Sheldrake 1998, 1999, 2000).

In spite of their prior assumption that an ability to detect unseen staring must be illusory, both Baker (2000) and Colwell et al. (2000) in their first experiments obtained unexpected positive results consistent with such an ability. They attempted to dismiss these findings by question-begging arguments. In their second experiments, which gave the non-significant results they expected, an investigator with negative expectations acted as the starer. This arrangement provided favorable conditions for experimenter effects, already known to occur in staring experiments (Wiseman and Schlitz 1997). Both Baker and Marks and Colwell also failed to mention a large body of published data that went against their conclusions. In short, their claims were misleading and ill-informed.

For the full text of this paper see Research on the Feeling of Being Stared At