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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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Background Wikipedia reading: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychic_staring_effect –  waiwai933 Jun 15 '11 at 3:26
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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

4 Answers 4

up vote 46 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

Here's the short description of the methodology adopted in several up-to-date researches, as it's described in Science Set Free: 10 Paths to New Discovery by Rupert Sheldrake:

"Since the 1980s the sense of being stared at has been investigated experimentally both through direct looking and also through closed circuit television (CCTV). In the scientific literature it is variously referred to as “unseen gaze detection” or “remote attention” or “scopaesthesia” (from Greek skopein, to view, and aisthetikos, sensitive).

In direct-looking experiments, people work in pairs, with a subject and a looker. In a randomized series of trials, blindfolded subjects sit with their backs to the lookers, who either stare at the back of their necks, or look away and think of something else. A mechanical signal—a click or a beep—marks the beginning of each trial. Within a few seconds the subjects guess whether they are being looked at or not. Their guesses are either right or wrong, and are recorded immediately. A test usually consists of twenty trials. These tests are so simple that a child can do them, and thousands of children already have.

In the 1990s, this research was popularized through New Scientist magazine, BBC TV and Discovery Channel TV, and many tests were conducted in schools and as student projects at universities. Altogether, tens of thousands of trials were carried out. The results were remarkably consistent.

Typically, about 55 percent of the guesses were right, as opposed to 50 percent expected by chance. Although the effect was small, because it was so widely replicated it was highly significant statistically. In more rigorous experiments subjects and starers were separated by windows or one-way mirrors, eliminating the possibility of subtle cues by sound or even smell. They were still able to tell when they were being watched."

Dean Radin published a meta-analysis of 60 different super-visioned experiments conducted over 33,357 trial tests, titled The Sense of Being Stared At: A Preliminary Meta-Analysis. The result is a 54% chance of hit.

It is clear that the mean hit rate stabilizes to just over 54%, where 50% is expected by chance. The FEM weighted mean effect size was significantly above chance, e = 0.089 ± 0.003 (mean ± standard error), z = 32.5, p = 10–232, and the distribution of effects was significantly heterogeneous, Q = 763.3 (58 df), p = 10–232.

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Welcome to Skeptics! 1) Presumably you are referring to one of the other poorer answers. This isn't the place for comments on that answer. –  Oddthinking Dec 4 at 12:15
    
2) Please provide a cite for that quote. That quote doesn't, itself, provide references so it is a poor secondary source. –  Oddthinking Dec 4 at 12:16
    
3) Please link to Dean Radin's meta-analysis, so we can see it for ourselves. Radin's reputation as a researcher isn't strong, so we need to inspect it ourselves. –  Oddthinking Dec 4 at 12:17
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4) "A 54% chance of hit. That's huge given the number of trials and chance probability of 50%." Such a statement needs statistic analysis. We need extraordinary proof to accept such an extraordinary claim which has no reasonable mechanism. –  Oddthinking Dec 4 at 12:19
    
5) ` "Null hypothesis until extraordinary evidence is provided" is for hard-sciences. For soft-sciences a 4% difference on the probability is a huge difference.' I'm afraid that is not just wrong, but insultingly so. Further, this is hard science so it is always irrelevant. –  Oddthinking Dec 4 at 12:21

There are two elements to this field of study:

The first type of feeling of being watched is called the psychic staring effect (scopaesthesia).

a supposed phenomenon in which humans detect being stared at by extrasensory means. The idea was first explored by psychologist Edward B. Titchener in 1898 during a series of laboratory experiments that found only negative results. It has been the subject of contemporary attention by parapsychologists and fringe researchers, most notably Rupert Sheldrake.

The second type of feeling of being watched is called: The feeling of being watched, in english.

I could find no scientific studies that study if the feeling of being watched can arise from subliminally (unconciously) seeing someone watching you.

At this stage you can say that it has been disproved that humans can feel they are being watched in studies where the watcher is entirely imperceptible. There have been no studies that humans can get that feeling due to subliminial perceptions of being watched.

Titchener, E. B. "The 'feeling of being stared at.'" Science, 1898, New series Volume 8, pages 895-897. Retrieved 28 February 200

Rupert Sheldrake, Papers on The Sense of Being Stared At. Accessed 2008-05-28.

David F. Marks and John Colwell (2000). The Psychic Staring Effect: An Artifact of Pseudo Randomization. Skeptical Inquirer, 9/1/2000. [1]. Accessed 2010-15-5.

Lobach, E.; Bierman, D. (2004). "The Invisible Gaze: Three Attempts to Replicate

Sheldrake's Staring Effects" (PDF). Proceedings of the 47th PA Convention. pp. 77–90. Retrieved 2007-07-30.

Coover, J.E. 1913. The feeling of being stared at. American Journal of Psychology 24: 570-575.

Williams, L. 1983. Minimal cue perception of the regard of others: The feeling of being stared at. Journal of Parapsychology 47: 59-60.

Susanne Müller, Stefan Schmidt, Harald Walach (2009). "The Feeling of Being Stared at: A Parapsychological Classic with a Facelift". European Journal of Parapsychology 24.2: 117–138.

Sheldrake, Rupert (2003). The Sense of Being Stared At, And Other Aspects of the Extended Mind, London: Hutchinson. ISBN 0-09-179463-3.

Rupert Sheldrake (2005). The Sense of Being Stared At, and open peer commentary. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 12:6, 4-126.

David F. Marks and John Colwell (2000). The Psychic Staring Effect: An Artifact of Pseudo Randomization, Skeptical Inquirer, September/October 2000. Reprint. Accessed 2008-05-28. Sheldrake, Rupert. "Skeptical Inquirer (2000)", March/April, 58-61

Michael Shermer (October 2005). Rupert's Resonance: The theory of "morphic resonance" posits that people have a sense of when they are being stared at. What does the research show? Scientific American, October, 2005. Reprint.

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This post does not cite any references or sources. Please help improve this post by adding citations to reliable sources. Unsourced material may be challenged and removed.

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The reference list here is surprisingly close to the Wikipedia page (I added a link). Have you actually checked that these references are relevant. –  Oddthinking Dec 5 at 9:24
    
yes i presumed that the references were relevent to the question, as they are studies of the question, don't you think? Rather than questioning the list of references, could you please endeavour to provide your own additional references, if you find any others relative to the study? –  ufomorace Dec 5 at 9:38
    
do you think that the question "Can people feel somebody is watching them?" warrants a reference to the study on teh sense of being stared at, an open peer commentary, for example? –  ufomorace Dec 5 at 9:40
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I think quoting a reference that you haven't read and therefore cannot confirm supports your position is highly problematic. Overall, the valuable parts of this answer have been plagiarised from Wikipedia, and the novel paragraphs are unreferenced and unclear. –  Oddthinking Dec 5 at 15:38
    
Knowing about the quantity and quality of research matter relating to a certain subject, be it scopaesthesia, is an essential tool to anyone asking about the topic, and quantifies and qualifies the extent to which the field has been studied, and the results found. delete it if you want, i dont mind. –  ufomorace Dec 6 at 9:34

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