Solitude conjures imaginary companions

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’m lonely—
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.


Link to PubMed entry for study.
pdf of full text of the scientific paper.

6 thoughts on “Solitude conjures imaginary companions”

  1. This could explain why people can understand (and I suspect sympathize) with who Wilson was to Tom Hank’s character in the movie “Castaway.”

    But I would love to also see study that showed if online social interaction could counter this. I think there’s a distiction to be made between alone and lonely. I’m a grad student and am alone most days (sometimes weeks) but I don’t feel alone (or lonely). I know that’s anecdotal evidence, but I still wonder where my sanity would be if it weren’t for the web and Twitter.

  2. Forgive me for over-sharing, but I would also say this fits to my experience. A few years back, I was going through a pretty bad depressive phase and isolating from everyone, only leaving home for work and avoiding friends and family for a few months straight.

    At the time, my apartment also happened to be infested with roaches (not unrelated to the way I was neglecting health and hygiene). As the weeks passed, I went from seeing the roaches as invaders and being disgusted by them to seeing them as cohabitants and felt less alone having them around. Looking back, it’s crazy that I got to that point, but at the time, it felt totally normal.

  3. Could there also be another reason ( or an understanding ) that solitude is required for meditative states that link one with their higher selves….such as what monks practice?

    There is a plethora of evidence that supports ‘spirit guides’, ‘angels’, etc, etc, that routinely interject themselves into the lives of those experiencing this conscious contact.

    It would appear that the more noise and distraction that we create the more difficult it is to act in a conscious manner. Going within ( as in introspection and seclusion ) hardly proves that man conjures up his own world but rather it supports the stories of those who have gone to the “mount” or “forrest” for enlightenment.

    While it does seem possible that some people will “lose”themselves during such self imposed isolation it seems more of an issue of whether the person was “lost” to begin with.
    This is really bad “science” and to even report it is even more negligent on the behalf of the author of this piece. It smacks of a “witch hunt” and replete with ignorance and insularity. Dear gOd! When will wisdom be the rule of the day rather than subjective journalism?

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