Study: lonely connect with objects, pets

By Zachary Binney

When buried in books at 3 a.m. during midterm week, Chicago students hate to feel lonely and will do what they can to ease that pain. Socializing on the A-Level is one way students combat exam-induced loneliness, but University researchers have found another method. Lonely people compensate for lack of human contact by creating connections with pets, gods, and even gadgets.

The results of the study, which will appear in the February issue of Psychological Science, demonstrate a correlation between loneliness and anthropomorphism—or the tendency to ascribe human characteristics to animals or inanimate objects.

“Each experiment demonstrated in slightly different ways…that those who were lonely were indeed more likely to see human-like traits in non-human agents or to believe in commonly humanized religious agents such as God,” said Nicholas Epley in an e-mail interview. Epley is an assistant professor of behavioral science at the U of C’s Graduate School of Business and a study author.

Epley co-authored the study with U of C’s John Cacioppo, professor of psychology. Psychology doctoral candidates Adam Waytz of the U of C and Scott Akalis of Harvard University contributed to the findings.

Thomas Kramer, head of the Student Counseling and Resource Center at the University, said he isn’t surprised at the study’s findings.

“Little kids who have to play by themselves often make up imaginary friends, and people driving alone often talk to their cars,” he said. “I think what they are describing is a basic coping mechanism.”

The researchers conducted three experiments to test their hypotheses about anthropomorphism.

In the first, the researchers asked subjects to determine whether or not particular inanimate objects possessed five human qualities: a mind of their own, intentions, free will, consciousness, and emotions. Subjects were then surveyed on how lonely they were. Lonelier people were more likely to grant the gizmos human traits.

The researchers had 99 U of C students complete personality profiles in the second experiment. Based on these profile results, the students were given “future life predictions”—whether they would “end up alone” or experience “rewarding relationships.” The researchers then asked the subjects about their belief in several supernatural agents.

The students whom the researchers made to feel lonely reported stronger beliefs in the supernatural.

“Social disconnection does not turn atheists into fundamentalists, of course, but it may nudge religious belief,” the researchers wrote.

In the third test, the researchers had Harvard students watch video clips intended to make them feel fearful, lonely, or neither. Researchers then gave them a list of 14 characteristics and made them choose three to describe a pet or other close animal.

Lonely subjects were more likely to ascribe “social-connectedness traits”—capacities for thoughtfulness, considerateness, or sympathy—to their animals. Fear did not affect the results.

“It’s something special about loneliness” that causes people to anthropomorphize their surroundings, Epley said.

The research could have wide-ranging implications for human health and behavior. For example, the findings also provide insight into anthropomorphism’s opposite tendency, dehumanization.

The authors speculate that people who feel “especially socially connected” may be less motivated to ascribe human traits to people they don’t know, such as members of an out-group. Consequently, those who are socially connected may view members of out-groups as subhuman.

Additionally, similar studies have shown that chronic isolation poses as great a danger to health as smoking cigarettes. Anthropomorphism might alleviate the health risks associated with loneliness.

“This research seems to show that it can be helpful and healthy to anthropomorphize,” Kramer said.

But Kramer cautions people not to rely only on anthropomorphism during bouts of loneliness.

“The best way to relieve loneliness is to capitalize on any opportunities that one has for social interaction, and if that capitalization is being hindered by either anxiety or a lack of social skills, the person should seek help,” he said.