Saturday, January 19, 2008

New study on the comfort of imaginary friends

MURIEL FRASER looks at new research
In terms of companionship, God may function like a Yorkie with a hairbow. This is the conclusion of a new study which finds that

both God and anthropomorphised pets can represent attempts to populate one's environment with pseudo-people, and that the impulse to do this appears to be reinforced by loneliness.
The paper, to be published in next month's Psychological Science, concludes that "social disconnection increases the tendency to create humanlike agents...."

This makes good evolutionary sense. Even moderate isolation from other people can compromise one's immune system, while also elevating blood pressure, stress hormones and even the incidence of clinical depression. Taken together, the effects of loneliness turn out to be as damaging to the health as smoking cigarettes. Thus anything that decreases the feeling of isolation is going to be a survival benefit, regardless of whether the "friend" is non-human or even non-existent.

In experiments where people are subjected to extreme isolation, they quickly begin holding conversations with imaginary people, animals or deities. Recent surveys suggest that people feel more connected to God when praying alone than in a group. And the lonely are more likely than others to report having a personal relationship with God. The death of a loved one also tends to increase religious beliefs.

In the new study,

these results from previous ones were checked experimentally by artificially inducing a sense of social isolation in both believers and non-believers. As expected, this resulted in increased expressions of belief in the religious and even, to a lesser extent, in the doubters. As the psychologists noted, "Social disconnection does not turn atheists into fundamentalists, of course, but it may nudge religious belief for believers and non-believers alike."
Many studies have shown that both believers and pet owners tend to be happier and healthier, but until now no one had pointed out a connection: the comfort of imaginary friends.

Source: N. Epley et al., "Creating Social Connection Through Inferential Reproduction", Psychological Science, February 2008.
Source: 18 January 2008, NSS Newsline

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