Bem doesn’t claim to possess magnificent gifts of ESP himself. In fact, he believes that the ability prevails most in people who are not like him—in extroverts who “get bored easily and respond favorably to novel stimuli.” Still, in his paper he seems almost unable to contain his exuberance. He quotes the White Queen in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, who encourages Alice to believe in “impossible things.” “When I was your age,” the Queen says to Alice, “I did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” He concludes by hoping that his article will prompt skeptics to “believe at least one anomalous thing before breakfast.”
Bem appeared on the Colbert Report to discuss his research, which Colbert referred to as “time-travelling porn.”
When a prepublication version of the paper was released last fall, Ray Hyman, an emeritus psych professor at the University of Oregon, called it “craziness, pure craziness. I wouldn’t rule out that this was an elaborate joke,” Hyman added, noting Bem’s “great sense of humor.”
The media descended on the story. Stephen Colbert brought Bem on air and made quips about “time-traveling porn.” The New York Times interviewed Bem, as did Al-Jazeera, ABC, and Fox News. And by the time I finally reached him—in early February, at his modest condo in Ithaca—it seemed like he was returning from a long and comical voyage. The egghead scholar, who’s spent the last 54 years of his life tucked away on college campuses, had just journeyed through the bowels of celebrity culture—and emerged sporting a bemused grin. “My partner is always talking about who should play me in the film version,” Bem said of his longtime companion, Ithaca College communications professor Bruce Henderson. “He’s thinking Dustin Hoffman.”
Rumpled and balding, Bem lay sprawled on his beige couch in stocking feet and an old plaid flannel shirt and kept riffing on the strange and lovely twists in the plot that the study of precognition can create. “One time,” he says, “I decided I was going to do a personality test on psi subjects. I figured I’d put it at the end of the experiment, so it wouldn’t affect anything, and then I started thinking.” Bem paused and then, meaningfully, he added, “But of course it would.”
Soon, his eyes were closed and he was gently cupping his hand over his face, searching for a word or a thought. He had an intellect’s way of vanishing from the material world, and he could bring you along with him. As I sat there listening, I forgot about the piano nearby us, and the electronic keyboard. The only reality, it seemed, was the fine thread of ideas that Bem kept spinning forward, nimbly, like a spider creating the filament lines of its web.
“I love precognition,” Bem said. “It’s mind-boggling—you just can’t fathom how it works in a Newtonian world.” Then he smiled, with a joy so infectious that I felt almost like I was slipping down into a rabbit hole and back through time, to a long-ago morning in Colorado.
Daryl Bem grew up in Denver. When he was eight he learned to perform magic tricks. On Saturdays, he would take the city bus downtown, all alone, to the magic club at Pratt’s Bookstore. He still remembers the magic instructor at Pratt’s, a looming man named Earl “Elbow” Reum, and the way he made a small, glowing globe, the Zombie, disappear under a handkerchief.
Bem spent all his allowance money at the bookstore. “I loved how, with magic, you could fool people, even adults,” he says. “I’m interested in things that go beyond everyday experience—magic, ESP, music, whatever it is.”
When Bem arrived at Reed in 1956, he found transcendence in the study of physics. Considering thermodynamics and gravity in Eliot Hall, he wondered, “Why is it that math describes the physical universe so well? Is there a deep connection, or do the two simply seem to be held together because they were both invented by the human brain?”
He would eventually major in physics at Reed, but he also studied psychology. For one pysch class, he performed fake demonstrations of ESP (in other words, magic shows) for small groups and then compared the subjects’ credulousness to their susceptibility to hypnosis. “That was fun,” he says now.
More critical was a lecture he heard one morning from professor Marvin Levich [philosophy 1953–94] on the philosophy of science. “He talked about what makes a theory good,” Bem says, “and how one theory might be chosen over another if it is aesthetically elegant—that is, simple and based on very few assumptions.”
That idea spurred Bem to read Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which popularized the word “paradigm,” and in time shaped his method of scientific inquiry. While some academics burrow deep into one area (like, say, gender roles in fourteenth-century Micronesia), Bem is a sort of intellectual freelancer who roams through wide-ranging phenomona and then, about once every decade, stumbles upon what he calls a “puzzle,” a psychological conundrum that he cannot resist.
Academically, Bem is best known for his “self-perception theory,” which describes attitude change. He began puzzling over the theory’s root questions in the early ’60s, when he was taking a graduate psychology class at Harvard and considering how a 1954 Supreme Court case, Brown vs. Board of Education, ended up reducing Southerners’ racism by integrating schools. Prevailing wisdom then attributed the shift to “cognitive dissonance”: psychologists held that people changed their attitudes to comply with their behavior so as to quell internal conflict.
Bem speculated, instead, that people changed attitudes simply by observing their own behavior. He tested his hunch by installing two lights, a “truth light” and a “lie light,” in his laboratory and asking subjects to make “attitude statements” (for instance, “this is a very funny cartoon”) in front of the lights. When people spoke in front of the “truth light,” he found, they believed what they said. “People observe their own behavior,” Bem explains now, “and make inferences about their attitudes.”
By the time Bem was 30, his work on self-perception had made him in a known entity in psychology departments nationwide. He had come a long way from the basement of Pratt’s.