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Pavel Stepanek

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Pavel Stepanek, of Prague, Czechoslovakia, became, during the 1960s, the most tested individual participant in parapsychology experiments, both in terms of number of trials, and number of independent investigators. In 1968, results of these experiments were published in the journal Nature, with J. Gaither Pratt as principal author.[1] In 1970, the distinctiveness of Pavel's contribution was recognized by the Guinness Book of Records; it recorded that Stepanek was "the highest consistent performer in tests to detect powers of extra-sensory perception".

Critics have pointed out numerous experimental flaws in the tests that would have resulted in Stepanek being able to guess correctly with no need for extra-sensory perception, and have noted that when these problems were eliminated, Pavel failed the tests.[2]


Stepanek was born in Prague in 1931. After completing secondary school, he was employed as a foreign language correspondent for an export firm, and later as an information clerk for the Prague Central Library. He held this position throughout the duration of his participation in the experiments. These commenced when, in June 1961, Stepanek responded to a public notice by Milan Ryzl seeking participants. He had no personal or family history of ESP experiences.[3]


In 1962, the first report, principally by Milan Ryzl, was published of card-calling experiments with Stepanek. These involved simple tests of the ability to identify the top-facing color (either green or white) of randomly ordered and concealed cards. The aim of the study was to test the efficacy of hypnotic suggestions for ESP scoring.[4]

However, in 1965, warping of the cards that could them bend slightly towards one colour or the other was pointed out as a possible way of identifying which side of the card was facing up, Stepanek was no longer able to perform this trick.[2]

These experiments nonetheless continued, with increased security and complexity, for 10 years, drawing in investigators from the UK, USA, Australia, The Netherlands, Japan, and elsewhere; although the principal investigators were J. Gaither Pratt, then at the University of Virginia, and H. H. Jürgen Keil of the University of Tasmania. Pratt and Keil shared the 1970 McDougall Award (from the Foundation for Research on the Nature of Man) for their studies with Stepanek, as published in 1969. The complete studies were reviewed by Pratt[5] and Keil[6]. However, all these studies had possible experimental errors that could have given Pavel information on what colour to guess. In some experiments, experimenters could have seen the colour, and thus transmitted information to Stepanek. No attempt at olfactory controls was attempted, in several cases the experimenter was aware of what colour the card was, and thus could have been unconsciously broadcasting information to Stepanek. Furthermore, Stepanek was never prevented from handling the materials, which opened many possibilities for him to find out information through tactile and other such means.[2]

A later study, in 1990, failed to indicate any ability to identify events at a level greater than chance.[7]

Other findingsEdit

It was also observed in early studies that, when the envelopes in which the cards were concealed were reused, Stepanek - seemingly without his conscious knowledge - started to give the same response (either green or white) to particular envelopes. It was concluded that some subtle differences between the envelopes were biasing Stepanek's responses. This was controlled by next enclosing the enveloped cards within other covers, and eventually several more covers. Parapsychlogists were surprised the effect failed to disappear;[8] however, the effect completely disappeared when the envelopes were put inside a rigid box, and Stepanek was never prevented from handling the objects, which critics claim as evidence that tactile stimuli were creeping through.[2]


  1. Pratt, J. G., Stevenson, I., Roll, W. G., Meinsma, G. L., Keil, H. H. J., & Jacobson, N. (1968). Identification of concealed randomized objects through acquired response habits of stimulus and word association. Nature, 220, 89-91.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 C.E.M. Hansel, ESP: Deficiencies of Experimental Method, Nature 221, 1171-1172 (22 March 1969) DOI:10.1038/2211171a0
  3. [Anon.] (1970, November). An outstanding ESP subject. Parapsychology Bulletin, no. 71, 1-2.
  4. Ryzl, M., & Ryzlova, J. (1962). A case of high-scoring ESP performance in the hypnotic state. Journal of Parapsychology, 26, 153-171.
  5. Pratt, J. G. (1973). A decade of research with a selected subject: An overview and reappraisal of the work with Pavel Stepanek. Proceedings of the American Society for Psychical Research, 30, 1-78.
  6. Keil, H. H. J. (1977). Pavel Stepanek and the focusing effect. Research Letter (Parapsychology Laboratory, University of Utrecht), 8, 22-39.
  7. Kappers, J., Akkerman, A. E., Van der Sijde, P. C., & Bierman, J. (1990). Resuming work with Pavel Stepanek. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 56, 138-147.
  8. Pratt, J. G., Keil, H. H. J., & Stevenson, I. (1970). Three-experimenter ESP tests of Pavel Stepanek during his 1968 visit to Charlottesville. Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 64, 18-39.
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