The Science of The Charlie Charlie Challenge

Naturally, these hard-to-balance objects have a tendency to roll around because the center of gravity is so difficult to access.


Invoking Charlie:

“Charlie Charlie, can you play?”   Take two pencils, balance one on top of the other, making an X or cross, over the top of a paper with four quadrants labeled “yes” and “no.”  Try to summon the supernatural entity, Charlie, and then ask him questions.  The pencil on top will eventually move and touch down into one of the quadrants!  Did it just move on its own?  Did you just summon a demon named Charlie?  The Charlie Charlie Challenge, not too dissimilar in nature to the infamous “Ouija” Board game, intends to get you and your friends in touch with the spirit world.  In this case, a demon named Charlie, apparently, and the goal is to see if he will play, and then answer “yes” and “no” questions.

So what about this game is so popular, and so convincing to so many that something supernatural is at play?   It is based on shaky science and methodology at best.  Good luck even getting one pencil to balance on top of the other.  I tried and failed many times!  Once you do actually accomplish playing the game the way it’s intended, here are some of the real scientific factors at play.

1. Gravity:

So what causes the pencil to move and even spin on its own? Only one of the most powerful forces on Earth: gravity. The “center of gravity” is a point where an object’s mass is concentrated.  In order to balance one object on top of another, the topmost object’s center of gravity must be positioned precisely over the supporting object. In the case of the Charlie Charlie Challenge, players balance two pencils on top of one another. Naturally, these hard-to-balance objects have a tendency to roll around because the center of gravity is so difficult to access.  If the edges were flatter or smoother, it might be easier, but then the long thin objects wouldn’t move around quite as much.


2. Magical Thinking:

“Magical thinking,” is the attribution of causal relationships between actions and events which cannot be justified by reason and observation.  In clinical psychology, magical thinking can cause a patient to experience fear of performing certain acts or having certain thoughts because of an assumed correlation between doing so and threatening calamities. Magical thinking may lead people to believe that their thoughts by themselves can bring about effects in the world or that thinking something corresponds with doing it.  It is a type of causal reasoning or causal fallacy that looks for meaningful relationships of coincidences between acts and events.


3. Power of Suggestion:

A 2012 study published in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science found that people often employ a “response expectancy” in certain situations. In other words, by anticipating that something will occur, a person’s thoughts and behaviors will help bring that anticipated outcome about. In the case of this spirit-summoning game, it could be that players expect a certain result and their actions during the game – like breathing directly and subtly on the object – help bring it about.


4. Ideomotor Effect:

Aside from the Charlie Charlie Challenges’ seemingly mystical effect on pencils, other forms of “divination” include the Ouija board, turning tables, pendulums and dowsing rods.  Many of the supernatural qualities of these activities has been scientifically explained through something known as the “ideomotor effect,”  The ideomotor effect was first described in the 19th century by the English doctor and physiologist William Carpenter. It suggests that it’s the involuntary muscular movements of the people using the objects that causes them to move, not spiritual or demonic intervention.


5. The Excitement of the Unknown:

When we get really scared, our heart beats a little faster, we breathe a bit more intensely, perspire more and get butterflies in the pit of our stomachs. It is not uncommon for people to want to push themselves just to see just how much fear they can tolerate. There is a great sense of satisfaction when we can prove to ourselves we actually can handle more anxiety than we ever imagined we could.  There’s also a hormonal component when it comes to fear and enjoyment. The hormonal reaction we get when we are exposed to a threat or crisis can motivate this love of being scared. The moment we feel threatened, we feel increasingly more strong and powerful physically, and more intuitive emotionally. This charge to our physical and mental state is called an “adrenaline rush,” and as humans we are drawn to this type of feeling.  Participating in activities like the Charlie Charlie Challenge is a sure fire way to guarantee some chills, if you’re into that sort of thing.


Some media may contain mature content. Discretion is advised when viewing with students.

Lesson Plan

Learning Objective: The Charlie Charlie Challenge attaches supernatural attributes to natural forces that can be scientifically observed and measured.  This lesson is meant to explore the center of gravity and the ideomotor effect.

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Lesson tags: Charlie Charlie, Eighth, Featured, Film, Ninth, Pop Culture, Science, Seventh

Melissa Pelletier

Melissa has a Masters in Educational Communication and Technology from NYU. She has worked in academic publishing, games, and the educational toys industries.