The Possibility of Precognition
An exploration of the validity of evidence that humans can predict the future.
Posted July 4, 2021 | Reviewed by Vanessa Lancaster
- People regularly report visions of future events, including sports matches. Some studies also report an ability to predict the stock exchange.
- Many scientists accept that there is a consistent, small but significant, effect in precognition studies.
- Across science, comparative "effect sizes" are commonly accepted as reliable evidence.
In 1946, a man called John Godley – then a student at Oxford University – dreamt he was reading a list of horse race winners in a newspaper and saw the names Bindal and Juladdin. The following day he checked a newspaper and found that two horses with those names were running that day. He risked a bet with a group of friends; both horses won, and the group won large sums of money.
Godley had the same experience several times over the following years. The fourth time he had such a dream, he made a written statement of his predictions (again involving two horses), which was witnessed by several people, sealed in an envelope, stamped by a post office official, and locked away until the day of the race. When this prediction came true, Godley became famous.
The standard scientific reaction would be to explain this story in terms of coincidence, exaggeration, or fraud. Many scientists are convinced that psi phenomena such as precognition do not exist. However, I am open to the existence of such phenomena. This is partly because, on occasion, I have experienced them myself. I have also had a few precognitive dreams related to sport. It’s not as though I dream about sports matches regularly. I can only recall a few such dreams. But on most of these occasions, the details of my dreams have been correct.
In September 2001, England played Germany in football in a World Cup qualifying match. I arranged to watch the match at my friend's house, together with his German girlfriend. The night before the match, I had a dream in which I was sitting in my friend's living room watching the match, which was still in progress. The score on the TV screen read 'England 4, Germany 1.'
When I woke up in the morning, the dream was in my mind, and I remember thinking, 'England 4, Germany 1? That's impossible!' England had only beaten Germany at football once in 35 years — in June the previous year when they had sneaked a 1-0 victory. A 4-1 lead for England was an extremely unlikely possibility. But as it turned out, England outplayed Germany, and after 66 minutes, they scored their fourth goal, to take a 4-1 lead. When the screen switched to the same score I had dreamt, I was filled with a very eerie feeling.
About 10 minutes later, they scored again, and the game finished 5-1. The score was 4-1 for those 10 minutes or so, and it seemed logical to conclude that I had somehow caught a glimpse of a moment during that period. To get the scoreline into perspective for those who aren't familiar with the world of soccer, it was the first time in 45 years that any team had scored five goals against Germany.
Such dreams suggest the possibility of making money through precognition. To my knowledge, there are no cases of people who have dreamt of winning lottery numbers, but scientists have investigated the possibility of predicting financial markets.
In a 2014 study, 10 participants attempted to predict the movement up or down of the Dow Jones Industrial Average. The predictions were correct in all seven trials, leading to a profit of $16,000.1
In a similar 2017 study, 15 participants who had previously shown some signs of psi ability attempted to predict the movement of the German stock market. In 48 trials, 38 were correct, amounting to a highly significant rate of 79.16%. (The researchers decided not to use the study as an opportunity for profit, only investing tiny amounts of money, but they made a significant profit in percentage terms)2.
All of this begs the question: If human beings can predict the future, why don’t we all get rich through predicting financial markets or sports games? This relates to a criticism often made of psi research — that of “small effect sizes.”
The Issue of Small Effects
Contrary to what many people think, the results of precognition experiments have proven to be consistently positive. Over many decades, and using many different research procedures, there has proven to be a small but significant effect. Even people who are skeptical about psi admit that this effect exists.
A 1989 meta-analysis of 309 “future-telling” studies conducted on 50,000 subjects found a significant success rate, which far outweighed any possible bias due to selective reporting3.
A meta-analysis of more recent presentiment experiments (up to 2010) found an even more significant positive result4. In 2011, the social psychologist Daryl Bem published nine experiments involving more than 1000 participants, eight of which showed significant statistical evidence for precognition and premonition5. Over the following three years, Bem’s results were successfully replicated many times (although with some failures too)6.
These results seem impressive, but some skeptics sieze on the “small” aspect, arguing that the effects are too small to constitute proof. Sometimes the argument is made that “extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence.”
However, it is essential to note that, even though they are small, the effect sizes for psi abilities are, in the words of psychology professor Chris Roe, “broadly on a par with any other subdisciplines of psychology”7. As Roe notes in a recent article, a 2019 study of 100 randomly chosen empirical studies from psychology found mean effect sizes in the same range as psi research8.
In a medical study of the effects of aspirin with over 22,000 participants, the treatment was concluded as beneficial based on a much smaller positive effect than standard psi experiments. This has also been the case with studies of medical interventions for conditions such as polio, convulsions, blood clots, and AIDS9.
In other words, when small-scale effects occur consistently in large numbers of people, they are accepted as proof. And undoubtedly, by that criterion, precognition has been proven. As the statistician Jessica Utts has stated, “Using the standards applied to any other area of science, it is concluded that psychic functioning has been well-established”10.
This is especially impressive, bearing in mind that psi abilities are different from standard psychological or physical phenomena that manifest themselves regularly and reliably. As I point out in my book Spiritual Science, psi abilities are unusual talents that are inconstant and unreliable. Like other talents such as linguistic or creative abilities, they vary from person to person. Perhaps most people have minimal (if any) psi abilities, while a small minority of people possess them to a significant degree.
Like creative abilities, they may also vary from situation to situation. You wouldn’t expect a poet to write a poem on demand, and neither should you expect a person to demonstrate precognitive abilities on demand. Even a person who usually has significant psi abilities may not call on them if the environment is uncongenial (e.g., a noisy or negative atmosphere) or feel nervous or stressed. In these terms, it seems inevitable that psi effects should be small.
Now that the European Football Championships are taking place, I’ve been hoping to have precognitive dreams about some of the matches. Nothing has transpired so far, but there are still a few matches left. If I dream about one of the results, I’ll certainly put a bet on it. If I have a major windfall, I’ll let you know.
(1) Smith, C. C., Laham, D., & Moddel, G. (2014). Stock Market Prediction Using Associative Remote Viewing by Inexperienced Remote Viewers. Journal of Scientific Exploration, 28(1). Retrieved from https://journalofscientificexploration.org/index.php/jse/article/view/6…
(2) Müller, M., Müller, L. & Wittmann, M. (2019). Predicting the Stock Market: An Associative Remote Viewing Study. Zeitschrift für Anomalistik Band 19 (2019), S. 326–346.
(3) Honorton, C., & Ferrari, D. C. (1989). “Future telling”: A meta-analysis of forced-choice precognition experiments, 1935-1987. Journal of Parapsychology, 53, 281–308.
(4) Mossbridge J, Tressoldi P and Utts J (2012) Predictive physiological anticipation preceding seemingly unpredictable stimuli: a meta-analysis. Frontiers of Psychology 3: 390.
(5) Bem, D. J. (2011). Feeling the future: Experimental evidence for anomalous retroactive influences on cognition and affect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100, 407–425.
(6) Bem, D., Tressoldi, P. E., Rabeyron, T. & Duggan, M. (2014). Feeling the Future: A Meta-Analysis of 90 Experiments on the Anomalous Anticipation of Random Future Events (April 11, 2014). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2423692 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2423692
(7) Roe. C. (2021). ‘Small Wonder: Effect Sizes in Parapsychology.’ The magazine of the society of Psychical Research, pp. 4-5, p.4.
(8) Schäfer, T., & Schwarz, M. A. (2019). The Meaningfulness of Effect Sizes in Psychological Research: Differences Between Sub-Disciplines and the Impact of Potential Biases. Frontiers in psychology, 10, 813. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00813
(9) Rosnow, R. L., & Rosenthal, R. (2003). Effect sizes for experimenting psychologists. Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology/Revue canadienne de psychologie expérimentale, 57(3), 221–237. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0087427
(10) Utts, JM, “An Assessment of the Evidence for Psychic Functioning” in Journal of Scientific Exploration, 10(1), pp. 3–30, 1996, p.3