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I think most of us is familiar with this feeling. You can tell someone (who stands behind your back) is staring at you without any physical evidence.

Is it possible or is it just a matter of coincidence? How is this phenomena called? Was it ever proven or disproven?

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As an avid SCUBA diver of 500+ dives, I have distinctly noticed that divers fail to turn to see objects (other divers, fish, etc.) outside their FOV. This difference in behavior is so clearcut that I have come to believe that the feeling of being looked at arises from either subliminal hearing or touch (air currents). Purely anecdotal, of course. –  Larry OBrien May 11 '11 at 0:03
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Hah, I stared at you for three hours through the window while you sat at your computer, but you never noticed me. –  muntoo May 11 '11 at 3:01
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No wonder my ears were burning -- I've been keeping my eyes on you lately! 8-D –  Randolf Richardson Jun 15 '11 at 3:12
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From personal experience, there are many times when I turned around and nobody was there - this could be confirmation bias –  Phoshi Jun 15 '11 at 8:52
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Interestingly enough, if someone is within your line of sight there is a gaze detection system that could trigger the "being watched" feeling that people sometimes describe. –  rjzii Jun 18 '12 at 18:37

2 Answers 2

up vote 36 down vote accepted

There are some (in)famous experiments done by Rupert Sheldrake who claims that a so-called "morphogenetic" field is responsible for this sort of thing. Alas, his experiments had quite sloppy methodology.

The feeling itself is real, as most here will testify. But it has nothing to do with being actually stared at/observed.

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=ruperts-resonance

Apart from some technical problems with Sheldrake's experiment, here is a partial explanation for why some people really believe they can feel when they are stared at:

Second, psychologists dismiss anecdotal accounts of this sense to a reverse self-fulfilling effect: a person suspects being stared at and turns to check; such head movement catches the eyes of would-be starers, who then turn to look at the staree, who thereby confirms the feeling of being stared at. [...] When University of Hertfordshire psychologist Richard Wiseman also attempted to replicate Sheldrake's research, he found that subjects detected stares at rates no better than chance.

So the conclusion is no, people cannot really feel somebody is watching them.

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That alone is not really enough for a good conclusion. Just because an experiment that is suggesting this effect had some issues, it does not by itself mean that the results were wrong. This needs more evidence. –  Cray Jun 15 '11 at 15:30
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@Cray, given the claim is extraordinary (by what mechanism could a person detect the gaze direction of someone outside of their field of view?), it is reasonable to continue to provisionally accept the null hypothesis until extraordinary evidence is provided. –  Oddthinking Jun 18 '12 at 3:34
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@Oddthinking: Vision isn't the only sense. Both hearing and smelling could do something. The person who's viewing might change his breathing rate or emit pheromones because he's entering a social interaction. –  Christian Jun 18 '12 at 22:18
    
I think even those who researched on this failed to understanding what part of the claim they ought to investigate and that is, what causes one to turn there head in the first place (or suspect that they are being watched). The conclusion doesn't seem to explain this feeling, it only explains why it appears that somebody was watching you. –  vikki Jun 26 '12 at 8:51
    
Sounds like measurement bias to me. –  oɔɯǝɹ Apr 11 at 18:49

Cornell psychologist Edward Titchener (who studied under Wundt) tested the ability to detect unseen staring and published in Science (1898). His conclusion: people cannot detect when they are being stared at, though a great many believe they can.

Though others have tested this `ability' over the years (e.g., Rupert Sheldrake), the results are mixed, and when statistically significant results are got, this is usually because of sloppy procedure.

Titchener would be rolling in his grave to know this sh*t is still being discussed.

Here's a short summary (source):

[Titchener] reported that over the years he had conducted a large number of informal tests and found no evidence for this particular claim. As far as Titchener was concerned people were not able to demonstrate their widely held belief.

He went on to provide a very good normal explanation for why people have this belief. First he noted that humans have forward facing vision, which leaves us exposed to the rear and he suggested that when in a situation where you are forced to present your back to a group of people, that there may be some psychological discomfort in that. He went as far to say that our ancestors must surely have devoted constant care to the defence of their backs. Titchener claimed that this back vigilance is the first element of staring detection: that people protect their backs by being aware of the environment behind them.

Once the feeling to turn around has formed, it is followed by an executing of the behavioural component: turning the head around and examining the back environment. Attention moves across the back of the room, scanning it to update their information as to what is actually going on.

Titchener next turned his attention to what might be happening behind the individual. He noted that his students could be engaged in a range of different behaviours (playing with their hair, eating food etc) and that it should be expected that some of the people sitting behind may be staring in the general direction of the individual. When they turn around, they disturb the visual field for those people who happen to have been looking in their general direction. This movement is a strong stimulus for people sitting behind, which they are required to attend to. There may in fact be any number of people who have the person in their visual field and who suddenly respond to the movement of the person looking around.

It is this coincidence which Titchener argued is the basis for the belief. Why do people feel the special tingling in their neck though? Titchener remarked that this no different from the feeling experienced in the bottom after sitting down for a long time!

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This answer seems focused on secondhand "informal tests" and conjecture. The points are great, but did this guy actually study the phenomenon or just watch people and sort of figure it out? The article you linked doesn't really do anything other than describe the situation and conclusion. I don't doubt he actually did study it but nothing here suggests so. –  MrHen Jun 15 '11 at 13:01
    
There is quite a lot of research into staring detection. I am not really very interested in giving a different answer or more complete answer. Just offering a perspective. I suggest not wasting time on it though... –  Frank_Zafka Jun 15 '11 at 13:13
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@RSoul: The best way to stop us wasting time on this is to give a definitive answer, so we can move on, rather than "offering a perspective" that just encourages more people to offer a perspective. –  Oddthinking Jun 18 '12 at 10:47

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