University of Chicago researchers have found evidence that humans have a tendency to attribute unique man-like characteristics and qualities to nonhuman beings for coping up with the pain of loneliness.
Nicholas Epley, Assistant Professor of Behavioral Science at the university, says that this tendency is known as 'anthropomorphism' among social scientists.
"Biological reproduction is not a very efficient way to alleviate one's loneliness, but you can make up people when you're motivated to do so. When people lack a sense of connection with other people, they are more likely to see their pets, gadgets or gods as human-like," he said.
The researchers designed three experiments to determine whether lonely people are likely to create humanlike connections with gadgets or pets, or to increase their belief in the supernatural.
In one experiment, they found a correlation between lonely people's feelings and their tendency to describe a gadget in terms of humanlike mental states.
In another experiment, people were made to feel lonely in the laboratory by asking them to write about a time when they felt lonely or isolated. The researcher found that under such circumstances, the subjects 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 team also discovered that all negative emotional states did not produce this effect.
"It's something special about loneliness," said Epley.
He corroborated this by saying that fear, for instance, would not always increase belief in God, or influence how people describe their pets.
Epley also said that loneliness could be both painful to experience and potentially deadly.
"It's actually a greater risk for morbidity or mortality than cigarette smoking is. Being lonely is a bad thing for you," he said.
However, anthropomorphizing pets or God might actually confer many of the same psychological and physical benefits that come from connections with other people, he added.
The researcher made it clear that such benefits might not apply to gadgets that were part of their studies.
"Non-human connections can be very powerful. A brain's not so sensitive to whether it's a person or not. If it's something that has a lot of traits associated with what it means to be a human, then all the better for us, it seems," Epley said.
The study has also provided insight into the flip side of anthropomorphism, that is, dehumanisation. It shows that people who enjoy a strong sense of social connection are less likely to perceive humanlike mental states in people who seem different from them.
Epley says that the classic examples occur during times of war, during which a strong sense of nationalism or group identity tend to emerge.
"It may be that strong in-group identity is one of the things that facilitates dehumanising the opposing side," he said.
The research will be published in the February issue of the journal Psychological Science.