ParaNexus is an association of paranormal researchers and paranormal investigators who conduct paranormal research and paranormal investigations involving ghosts, spirits, alien abductions, UFOs, unknown creatures, unexplained phenomena, psychic phenomena, and other mysterious events. Visitors can report a UFO sighting, hauntings, and other paranormal events via our 24 Hour Helpline. ParaNexus also offers paranormal investigator certification, paranormal certification, training, paranormal classes, and paranormal courses.

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It's In the Cards
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Written by Brian Parsons on October 11, 2010, 07:19:26 PM

Joseph Banks Rhine changed the face of Psychical Research (Parapsychology) when he took experimental research to a new level in the late 1920’s. It was then that he created the Zener cards, or ESP cards, as a new form of testing for Extra Sensory Perception.

ESP can be thought of as receptive psychic energy and can be simply defined as the ability to gain knowledge through means other than the five physical senses or by logical inference. ESP is broken into three categories; telepathy (awareness of information in the mind of another), clairvoyance (ability to receive information from objects or events from present time), and precognition (receiving information about objects or events in the future). Of these three, clairvoyance is the focus in basic ESP card tests, although variations of basic testing may include the potential for any of the three types.

Prior to Zener Cards, experimenters used regular playing cards as testing objects. The probability of guessing the right card would be 1 in 52JB and Luisa Rhine, which is pretty difficult when you break it down. When dealing with common and recognizable targets, subjects might have favorite cards and would render the “randomness” out of the experiment. Another issue with using playing cards is that there is two pieces of information associated with each card; the suit, and the face value. This leads to a potential “scoring” issue when using either one, the other, or both sets of information (Irwin, 69). The tester might dig for significant results in one area of scoring if another does not give favorable statistics (experimenter bias).

Zener CardsEarly attempts to progress from playing cards included using numbers and letters, but again, the subjects favored certain letters or numbers. Karl Zener, who was an experimental psychologist at Duke University along with Rhine, suggested using fundamental geometrical shapes. The square (originally a rectangle), circle, cross (plus sign), star, and a set of three wavy lines created the cards that Rhine would use in his card guessing experiments. A pack of cards were comprised of five cards of each of the five shapes, thus giving a total of 25. The probability of guessing the right card was now 1 in 5.

Basic terminology:

Run – A set of guesses from a pack of cards (25).
Call – The guess made by the subject as to what they think the card is (might be audible, touch screen, written by subject or experimenter, or other means).
Hit – Correct guess by the subject.
Miss – Incorrect guess made by the subject.
Target – The symbol on a particular card that is being guessed by the subject.

J.B. and Luisa Rhine created a pair of basic methods for using the cards for clairvoyant testing (Irwin, 70). The basic down through technique has the subject guess the order of symbols in a deck that lie face down. After the 25 guesses were taken the deck was flipped over card by card and compared to the calls made by the subject. Another method is taking one card at a time and putting it down on the table (still face down). The subject would then make their call, and the response recorded, and the process would then be repeated through the run. In both of these methods the experimenter was unaware of the symbol of the card. This is important as telepathy is ruled out and the subject’s only way of getting the information is from the card itself. Although my thought is that the precognition aspect is still alive and well as long as the results (hits and misses) are revealed to the subject in the future.

The use of Zener cards is a forced choice response experiment. This means the only answers are already chosen for you and there is no room for free choice. This is one of the major setbacks in using this method of experimentation as it has been noted that free response seems to create more spontaneous use of ESP abilities during testing (Palmer, pp. 90-92). Obviously not being a perfect form of testing there are also other problems to contend with; affirming the consequent (or the basic idea that scoring above chance in a trial does not mean the person has ESP), decline effect (people tend to score lower after boredom or tiredness sets in), differential effect (conditions during the experiment that alter levels of performance), displacement (guessing the right cards either before or after the intended target), and other issues hinder the believability and usefulness of these experiments to the general science field.

What’s the big deal about ESP? What does it have to do with ghosts? Fundamentally speaking, when we encounter a ghost there is transference of information to our minds somehow (ESP). For science to prove that ghosts exist they must first prove that this type of communication is possible as ghosts are not thought of physical beings that appear at will.

ParaNeJB Rhinexus is proud to announce that, with the help of Michael Jones, John Rossi, Doug Kelley and I, it will soon be unveiling some electronic ESP tests that will be based on Zener card trials. Although Zener cards are no longer used in Parapsychological research, the use of random number generators (RNG) is and these tests will be based on the random selection of targets through computer software and will be eventually targeting several aspects thought to strengthen ESP ability. Interestingly, while it has been noted with the decline effect that many seem to score in declining scores (due to boredom, tiredness, etc.), there seems to be a lessening of this effect with computerized forms (Palmer).

The creation and success of these tests hinders on the data collection methods as well as the mathematical equations used to create the statistics. Too short of a span of information/time can signal optional stopping (stopping the experiment when favorable data is present), and too long of a period of time can cause issues if a minor statistical error is present as this will skew data. Yes, there are many other websites that have RNG Zener card tests, and yes many of these are using their data for long term statistics, but where is the data? The data collection will be monitored and trends will be noted and further investigated as well as shared with the members of ParaNexus (and at times with the general public), and as stated, various types of tests will be created to focus on specific stimuli. This is just another step forward for ParaNexus in being a leader in the anomalous fields as far as research and experimentation is concerned.


Irwin, H.J. (1994). Introduction to Parapsychology, 2nd Ed. Jefferson, North Carolina. McFarland.

Palmer, J. (1978). Extrasensory Perception: Research findings. In S. Krippner (Ed.), Advances in Parapsychological Research, Vol. 2: Extrasensory Perception (pp. 59-243). New York. Plenum Press.

Further reading:

(Basic overview of experimental research in Parapsychology)

Broughton, Richard S. (1991). Parapsychology: The Controversial Science. New York. Ballantine Books. (Chap. 2, Mapping the Territory, pp. 33-49).

(Statistical methods in Parapsychological research)

Edge, Hoyt L., et al. (1986). Foundations of Parapsychology: Exploring the Boundaries of Human Capability. London. Routledge & Kegan Paul Inc. (Palmer, J., Chap. 6, Statistical Methods in ESP Research, pp. 138-160).

(Basic Parapsychology and Relevant Themes)

Auerbach, Loyd. (1986). E.S.P., Hauntings and Poltergeists: A Parapsychologists Handbook. New York: Warner Books.

Berger, Arthur S. and Joyce. (1991). The Encyclopedia of Parapsychology and Psychical Research. New York. Paragon House.

Blum, Deborah. (2006). Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death. New York. Penguin Books.

Broughton, Richard S. and Roll, William G. (1995). Psychic Connections: A Journey into the Mysterious World of Psi. New York. Delacorte Press.

Kripper, Stanley (Ed.). (1994). Advances in Parapsychological Research. Jefferson, NC. McFarland & Company.

Parsons, Brian. (2008). Handbook for the Amateur Paranormal Investigator or Ghost Hunter: How to Become a Successful Paranormal Group. Solon, Ohio. O.P.I.N. Books.

White, Rhea. (1990). Parapsychology: New Sources of Information, 1973-1989. Metuchen, NY. The Scarecrow Press.

Zollschan, George K., Schumaker, John F., Walsh, Greg F. (1989). Exploring the Paranormal: Perpectives on Belief and Experience. New York. Avery Publishing.


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Well done, Brian! Good information. 

by Doug Kelley on October 11, 2010, 09:07:05 PM

Thanks, Doug! It was great to link to a Parapedia article as well. The research was fun to do and I always learn something from it myself.

by Brian Parsons on October 11, 2010, 11:02:52 PM

Thanks Brian!  Will watch for the unveiling of the electronic ESP test.

by Sherry McDonald on October 12, 2010, 02:54:08 PM

Thanks, Sherry. Last update I heard was that Michael is working out the last details on it and it should debut soon.

by Brian Parsons on October 12, 2010, 06:49:41 PM

Loved the article!  I just finished reading Stacy Horn's book "Unbelievable" on the Duke parapsychology lab.  I was wondering if you coule elaborate on the Zener cards being a forced choice response experiment, versus a free choice experiment for testing ESP.  I'm new to the field, so I'm really looking to understand the history of parapsychology and the lessons we have learned. 

by James Nelson on November 15, 2011, 12:49:03 PM

Thanks for the positive comment! A “forced choice” experiment offers the respondent only one answer (whatever the character is on the Zener Card for example). A “free choice” experiment offers the respondent more than one potential answer or the ability to use other information. A remote viewing experiment, for example, offers the respondent the ability to draw or describe any information in the intended target area. “Free choice” experiments have been found to produce statistically higher evidence of ESP than in “forced choice” experiments, which is one reason why Zener Card tests are no longer used in Parapsychology.

The following link provides more detail (although some of the information seems to be repeated) 

by Brian Parsons on November 16, 2011, 11:25:41 AM

I've been reading Dr. Radin's "Entangled Minds", and I picked up a book "Remote Viewing in Hyperspace" (I forget the authors name).  And they also describe the forced choice versus the free choice in testing telepathy, and show improved evidence with free choice tests.  Is that because with the zener cards, they can achieve a hit by chance; But with free choice the odds of the reciever drawing or describing the image the sender is focusing on are so high it would preclude chance all together?  I had been thinking about this, and at first I thought forced choice would give better evidence as it was either a hit or miss with no room for interpretation of tha data.  Now I've shifted my thinking to the zener tests giving false positives.  I find this research fascinating!

by James Nelson on December 07, 2011, 02:41:58 PM

Statistically and scientifically speaking, a forced choice experiment would yield the best possible test of abilities, as long as the experiment was controlled and the statistics were tested. Unfortunately, one of the biggest problems with Zener cards is the statistical limitations, even with many runs a range of 5 cards is actually very limited. Also, many people tend to guess their favorite characters over actually "psychically" coming to the answer, along with a lot of other issues that eventually lead to them not to be used in laboratory experiments.

Free choice is better from a "psychic" point of view since the mind is not held to specifics and it is free to create or gather information from the environment. The bad side of this, of course, is the inability to attach statistical methods to free choice tests. These are all good reasons why Parapsychology is still struggling to prove scientifically that ESP/PK can be proven in a lab setting.  

by Brian Parsons on December 07, 2011, 05:17:18 PM
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Brian D. Parsons is the Executive Director for ParaNexus. He is formerly the Director of the Ohio Paranormal Investigation Network (now a client/investigator help site) and has been investigating ghostly claims since 1996. He has also studied under the MUFON Field Investigator's Manual for the various aspects of UFO investigations and has been a freelance cryptid researcher and investigator studying various cases in Ohio and western Pennsylvania.

Brian has written five books, “Handbook for the Amateur Paranormal Investigator or Ghost Hunter: How to Become a Successful Paranormal Group” as well as a companion book, ““Betty’s Ghost: A Guide to Paranormal Investigation”, and "Handbook for the Amateur Paranormal Investigator II: The Art and Science of Paranormal Investigation" serve as his introductory books into ghost investigation. His fourth book, "The 'E4' Method: Breaking the Mold of Paranormal Investigation" is an overview of his new methodology into client-centered paranormal investigation. His fifth book, "Handbook for the Amateur Cryptozoologist", provides a balanced look at the subject of cryptozoology and offers basic guidance behind the subject. He is a regular contributor of paranormal news (known as the Paranromal News Insider) to the Grand Dark Conspiracy radio program and has been a guest on several occasions.

Brian holds a PhD from the Insititute of Metaphysical Humanistic Science and lives in Twinsburg, Ohio, with his wife Amy and their dog Sasha.

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