We live in a time of high anxiety. We rush to WebMD to diagnose our latest sniffle. We can’t remember if we locked our door. We wonder if the volume on our headphones is too loud. But our paranoia seems acutely present — urgent even — when it comes to the feeling of being stared at. The sense that someone, somewhere has eyes on you. That someone is watching.
It’s a feeling so odd that you’d expect to find it alongside entries in The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows or on a list of emotions that have no English translation. But parapsychologists — researchers who study paranormal phenomenona — have given it a name: the psychic staring effect.
Over the years, parapsychologists have estimated that between 60 and 90 percent of people believe they can tell when they’re being watched. A 2005 Gallup poll found that nearly half of adults in the United States believe in the existence of extrasensory perception (ESP). For years, The ELI5 (Explain Like I’m Five) subreddit has been chock-full with requests for explanations on "Why can we ‘feel’ people looking or staring at us?"
The first study on the ability to detect someone’s gaze dates back to 1898. In “The ‘Feeling of Being Stared At’,” published in Science, Edward B. Titchener, a psychologist at Cornell University, explained that every year some number of his students would go on and on about how they could actually “feel” when they were being looked at — “a state of unpleasant tension or stiffness at the nape of the neck, sometimes accompanied by a tingling,” in Titchener’s words, “which gathers in volume and intensity until a movement which shall relieve it becomes inevitable.”
Titchener didn’t buy it, writing that no “scientifically minded psychologist” could believe in telepathy. Instead, he suggested that moving one’s head or body while turning to see if someone is staring at us is what catches the other person’s attention.
For a moment, Titchener’s tidy explanation stopped giving people a reason to believe that it’s actually possible to sense when someone is staring at you. But a little more than 20 years ago, parapsychologists — led by Rupert Sheldrake, a Cambridge-trained biochemist — breathed new life into the debate.
Sheldrake, whose interest in the paranormal has led some to label him a fringe scientist — TED even includes a disclaimer with his talk — conducted a series of randomized experiments during the 1990s with hundreds of subjects. He believed he had found proof that Titchener’s students were right: Blindfolded participants could correctly tell when they were being stared at around 55 percent of the time. It was a small effect, but Sheldrake pointed out that anything above 50 percent (what you would expect if someone just guessed) was evidence that people had some sense for when they were being stared at.
Skeptics wasted no time discounting Sheldrake’s studies, published in the nontraditional peer-reviewed publication Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, by pointing out flaws in his randomization methods. (It also didn’t help his credibility when one of the researchers later revealed that a participant who scored unusually high was under the influence of MDMA at the time.)
But Sheldrake maintains that gaze detection is well known among police officers, surveillance professionals, soldiers, and others who watch people as part of their jobs. In his book The Sense of Being Stared At (and in a published paper that shares the same title), Sheldrake writes that “when detectives are trained to follow people, they are told not to stare at their backs any more than necessary” because it might cause them to turn around.
Sheldrake’s work was followed by two academics who couldn’t replicate the effect and one parapsychologist who found a similarly slight rate above chance. None were published in major journals.
When I emailed Sheldrake to ask him why there hasn’t been more research on this subject, he explained, “This is a taboo area because the sense of being stared at ought not to happen if our minds are confined to the inside of our heads, as the current scientific orthodoxy assumes.”
That’s the kind of response that blows your mind when you’re a freshman in college, but Ilan Shrira, a social psychologist at Lake Forest College, says it’s nonsense. There’s “no convincing evidence” that humans have an ability to detect a gaze outside of their line of sight, he said, but confirmation bias dupes us into thinking we do. In other words, we tend to remember the times we catch someone staring and forget the times we don’t.
Shrira also pointed out that anything that feels like ESP is really just our peripheral vision actively looking for and logging small changes in our environment without us explicitly realizing it. Even out of the corner of an eye, we take notice when someone’s body or head is facing us as if they’re trying to get our attention.
“When detectives are trained to follow people, they are told not to stare at their backs any more than necessary.”
And that panicky feeling we get when we think we’re being stared at? Well, that might just be a biological tic we inherited from our prehistoric ancestors. In 2013, Colin Clifford and his colleagues at the University of Sydney found evidence to suggest we’re hardwired at birth to feel like we’re being observed, a "better-safe-than-sorry rule of thumb" to protect us from potential danger. By asking participants to guess the direction of an ambiguous gaze, Clifford and his team discovered a “behavioural tendency for an uncertain gaze to be perceived as more directed at us than it actually is.” Translation: We overestimate how often people are actually looking at us — especially at night, or when the other person is wearing dark sunglasses, or if you can’t see them at all.
Parapsychology has always lived on the fringes of mainstream science. But the field was thrust into the spotlight in 2011 when Daryl Bem, a prominent psychologist at Cornell University, turned the scientific community upside down with his highly publicized investigation of the paranormal. In a study published in the prestigious Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Bem claimed to have found evidence of psychic powers (including telepathy, clairvoyance, and psychokinesis).
The results made headlines around the world (Bem even appeared on the Colbert Report), and it led skeptics to momentarily question whether they had been too quick to dismiss these ideas all along. But just a year later, in the same journal as Bem’s original study, a group of researchers at various top-tier universities published a paper in which they attempted (and failed) to replicate the effect Bem reported. And with that, parapsychology was back on the outside looking in.
Inklings, hunches, and notions aren’t meaningful just because they’re shared by a mass of people. Phenomena like the psychic staring effect only become credible when they’re tested and replicated in a controlled environment. Science doesn’t base facts on collective gut feelings because people get things wrong all the time. If you need proof of that, just consider how many people swear it’s the Berenstein Bears.