When her daughter was bullied at school, Ligia Ramos handled the situation in an untraditional manner. Ramos, who moved to the Netherlands from Portugal, cooked up a batch of rice and distributed it into three different glass jars.
Then, she instructed her daughter to approach the jars of rice each morning, one by one. She was supposed to say “kind words” to the first jar, such as “thank you,” and “bad words” to the second jar, such as “you’re an idiot,” and ignore the third jar altogether. Ramos and her daughter performed these daily rice-jar salutations for three weeks, awaiting the results of the so-called “rice experiment.”
The rice experiment was invented nine years ago by Masaru Emoto, an “alternative-science” researcher who believes in the literal power of thought. The goal of the experiment is to show that a person’s attitude towards anything, even rice, affects what happens to it. The moral of the alt-science story is that being nice matters. The problem with the experiment is that it’s utter nonsense. Do we need sham science to teach lessons about kindness and empathy?
Emoto’s first brush with minor fame came in 2004, when he made a cameo in the movie What the Bleep do we Know. The movie also featured his water experiment, an attempt to prove that water exposed to positive, loving thoughts freezes into a particularly beautiful crystal formation. But it was his follow-up project, the rice experiment, that really took off.
The original Youtube video of Emoto performing the experiment racked up more than two million views and spawned a flurry of admiring copycats. After almost a decade, the experiment still makes the rounds online. Every year or so, some replication video surfaces and catches a new wave of hype. Most recently, the wellness website Mind Body Green shared an experiment video that garnered 273,000 views; another version from the self-dubbed “King of Random” pulled in 1.2 million.
Ramos’s rice experiment turned out like it was supposed to: After three weeks, the rice inside the jar that Ramos’s daughter complimented each day developed a pink color and a sweet aroma. The rice inside the second, yelled-at jar was dark and foul-smelling. The third, ignored jar of rice also smelled bad, but stayed white.
For Emoto and his followers, the transformed jars of rice prove his theory: The rice showered with positive thoughts fermented, while the rice in the other two jars rotted.
Scientists can’t help but roll their eyes. “We need to make sure we carry out experiments in ways that assure as much as possible that the effect is due to what we are testing and not random chance,” said Anne Madden, a postdoctoral microbiologist at North Carolina State University. “[In this case], many things could have led to the results.”
Julie Norem, a psychologist who studies defensive pessimism, echoed a similar idea, explaining that rice experimenters may be interpreting their results to confirm existing beliefs.
So, then, what’s actually happening inside these jars?
The observed changes are caused by communities of bacteria, fungi, and other types of microorganisms living inside the jars. In the rice experiment, microorganisms could come from a variety of sources, such as human skin, equipment used to cook and transport the rice, or the surrounding air. Slight differences between these communities determine which chemical processes take place inside each jar. “It may be that in any given jar there are slightly more lactic acid bacteria or yeast than there are other microorganisms,” said Madden.
To argue that the fate of the rice has anything to do with the emotional treatment of the jars, you’d need to run a tightly controlled study, thereby eliminating other explanations for the results. This means everything other than how the jars are spoken to and labeled must be identical — the jars themselves, the exact amount of water in the rice, the storage conditions, etc. Identical condition are nearly impossible to achieve at home. A controlled study would also involve, well, a control — presumably the third, unlabeled jar — to show what happens to rice that’s neither bullied nor coddled. But Emoto decided that the ignored rice rots because neglect hurts even more than insults do.
A few bloggers have set out to debunk the experiment. One of them is Carrie Poppy, a writer on paranormal issues whose rice experiment failed to mimic Emoto’s. On her blog, Poppy wrote:
In the end, it appears that Dr. Emoto’s assertion that intention can affect soppy rice doesn’t hold water. I can’t help but wonder if the well-meaning re-creators of this experiment on the internet didn’t help their rice along, exposing the neglected or hated rice to more air, changing the jars around to put them in different temperature or humidity conditions, or performing other tricks in an effort to support a well-intended but ultimately self-evident point: that being ignored or belittled hurts.
I’m probably wasting my time picking apart the experiment, though, because there’s no scientifically valid reason to entertain Emoto’s hypothesis. Really, the rice experiment isn’t about science. It’s about New Age optimism.
“The thing about optimism is that it can seem like a magic solution,” said Norem, the psychologist. “We would like to think that our thoughts can affect the world. The problem is that as far as we know our thoughts can only affect our world via our actions. There is no direct line, but it’s too hard for people to accept that. The idea that we could affect the world directly just through thinking is just too tempting. It’s as if we’re saying we’re more magical than we probably are.”
Ramos’s daughter was so fascinated by the results of the rice experiment that she showed it to other kids at school. As it turned out, this science experiment was really a lesson in being nice.
“Most people already believe that [it’s good to be nice to people],” said Norem. It’s kind of self-evident.”