Researchers at the University of Chicago (also reported in the New York Times) have explored the tendency to anthropomorphize–how we, especially when lonely, attribute human characteristics to our pets, to inanimate objects, and even to Our Invisible Friend.
The researchers designed three experiments to test their expectations that lonely people are more likely to make up for their lack of social connection by creating humanlike connections with gadgets or pets, or to increase their belief in the supernatural.
In one experiment, the team found a correlation between how lonely people felt and their tendency to describe a gadget in terms of humanlike mental states.
In another experiment, the team made people feel lonely in the laboratory by asking them to write about a time when they felt lonely or isolated. Under those circumstances, they were more likely to believe in the supernatural, whether it be God, angels or miracles, than when they were not feeling lonely.
“If we made them feel lonely, they were also more likely to describe a pet, even if it wasn’t their own pet, as having humanlike mental states that were related to social connection, like being more thoughtful, considerate and compassionate,” Epley said.
The research further revealed that not just any negative emotional state produces this effect. “It’s something special about loneliness,” Epley said. Fear, for example, doesn’t increase reported belief in God, or how people describe their pets.
If loneliness depresses you,
Researchers say that what you’ll do
If no one’s there with whom to sup,
You’ll be inclined to make one up,
Conversing with a dog or cat,
Or maybe, in the lab, a rat.
When lonely, or in isolation
We use anthropomorphization,
Projecting human mental states
Like wants and needs, or loves and hates
On pets, or cars, or even God
(Explains a lot you might find odd!)
We do this when we feel alone
Or isolated, it is shown,
But not when we’re afraid or mad
And not when we are merely sad–
It’s isolation’s misery
That animates our company.
So Wilson, on the island beach
With human kind so out of reach
Became Chuck Noland’s only friend,
Through thick and thin, till (near) the end.
(In outtakes, we may yet discover,
Wilson also served as lover!)
But why a volleyball? The study
Says the reason for this buddy
Also works to give a god
A greater “humanlike” facade–
So why a ball? The truth, I feel,
Is: Unlike God, the ball was real.
So talking to a volleyball
Is not so crazy after all.
(Oh, and for the record, the application of their study to Wilson is their own idea, not mine.)