I’ve just read a fantastic study on how loneliness, or even a brief reminder of it, leads us to see human-like qualities in objects around us, believe more strongly in the reality of God and supernatural beings, and even perceive pets to be more human-like.
The research, led by psychologist Nicholas Epley, is wonderfully conceived and speaks to how we seem to psychologically ‘reach out’ when we’re lonely to the point of wishful thinking.
But as well as being an interesting study, the scientific paper is wonderfully written. It’s quite poetic in places and I particularly liked the first paragraph of the ‘Discussion’ section – where scientists discuss the significance of the findings.
Needless to say, academic research papers are not usually quite so lyrical.
And God stepped out on space,
And he looked around and said:
I’ll make me a world . . . (Johnson, 1927/1990, p. 17)
Physicists have the scientific tools to suggest that Johnson may have gotten his poem profoundly wrong, but psychologists have the scientific tools to suggest that Johnson may have gotten his poem profoundly backward. In three studies, people who were chronically disconnected from others (Study 1) or momentarily led to think about disconnection (Studies 2 and 3) appeared to create humanlike agents in their environment— from gadgets to pets to supernatural agents such as God. These studies go beyond simply demonstrating that social disconnection leads people to seek companionship from nonhuman agents, showing that social disconnection can alter the way these agents are conceptualized or represented. Lonely people cannot make themselves a world, of course, but they can make themselves a mindful gadget, a thoughtful pet, or a god to populate that world.