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Is Telephone Telepathy Real? A New Study Found Positive Results When They Put It to the Test

Who’s calling? For anyone under the age of 30, the question itself might seem an anachronism – nearly all modern phones display the answer on their screens before you answer. But before the advent of the smartphone era, quite often picking up a ringing phone involved a brief moment of mystery as you wondered who was going to be on the other end of the line.

And in that era, one particularly odd phenomenon was ‘telephone telepathy’, in which people were surprised to have a feeling about who was calling them, which turned out to be correct – such as thinking of a long-lost friend, moments before they suddenly phone. In surveys in the US and UK, more than 40% of people claimed to have had this happen to them.

Many of these experiences are no doubt due to one or a number of mundane reasons: selective memory/confirmation bias (where you forget all the times you were wrong about who was calling, and only remember the rare instances you were correct), coincidence, and subconscious anticipation based on certain individuals’ routines/regular call times. But some previous studies over the years have attempted to control for those factors through controls, such as using a randomly selected callers from a pool of equally possible callers.

In one such study using four possible callers, in 571 trials, the overall success rate was 40%, significantly above the expected chance success rate of 25%. Independent investigators replicated these findings, although other attempted replications found only results that aligned with what would be expected by chance.

If the positive results are correct, however, we are left with the question of why ‘telephone telepathy’ occurs – is it some sort of unknown inter-mind communication (literally, telepathy), or even stranger, could it be precognition on the part of the person being called, accessing the information about who is calling them (or more correctly, who called them) from the future? And further, do certain factors play a part in the efficacy of telephone telepathy, such as caller familiarity, genetic relatedness, and physical distance?

A recent study by researchers at the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS) (“Who’s Calling? Evaluating the accuracy of guessing who is on the phone“), including acclaimed psi researcher Dean Radin, investigated some of these questions:

We conducted a cross-sectional study of groups of three participants (triads) who tried to guess who was calling them in 12 trials, six of which the web server randomly chose the caller before the callee’s guess (telepathic/pre-selected) and six of which the caller was selected after the callee’s guess (precognitive/post-selected). The objectives of this study were to evaluate: 1) the accuracy of participants in guessing who was calling them, and any difference between telepathic/pre-selected versus precognitive/post-selected trials; and 2) the relationship between genetic relatedness, emotional closeness, communication frequency, physical distance, and accuracy.

A total of 35 ‘triads’ (groups of three, so overall 105 participants) completed all 12 planned trials.

Significant positive results were found for when the caller directed positive intention towards the callee (ie. telepathic mechanism; P < .001), but not when the callee made their guess before the caller was randomly selected (precognitive mechanism). This result agrees with two previous studies that have investigated the mechanism and found positive results for the telepathic mechanism.

Furthermore, researchers found that genetic relatedness and communication frequency seemed to have a positive effect on accuracy, but suggest that further analyses are needed “to tease apart these nuances”.

Overall, researchers concluded:

We observed significantly above-chance results for telepathy trials, in which the web server pre-selected the callee and the caller was asked to direct their attention toward their partner. This outcome should be considered in light of possible cheating if the participants were in the same room. The variable of communication frequency was also associated with greater accuracy. The influence of emotional closeness and genetic relatedness was uncertain, with our findings adding to mixed results reported on these potential relationships in previous studies. In sum, we believe that further research is warranted to evaluate the telephone telepathy phenomenon.

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