Imaginary Companions and Identity
How Childhood Imaginary Companions Shape Our Adult Lives
As many as 65 percent of children report having an imaginary companion (IC), and these relationships often shape how a child navigates his or her social world. Imaginary companions are conceived as personified objects (e.g. teddy bear) or invisible characters, and are historically associated with social deficiency or maladaptive coping. Nonetheless, the catalysts for and functions of ICs are widely debated, and many researchers posit social advantages that may result from imaginary companionships. Indeed, ICs may actually provide additional practice for children, yielding more effective accommodation skills and increased social adaptability. The long-term outcomes of imaginary companionships, however, are still ambiguous.
The present research aims to deepen our understanding of the differences between adults who had imaginary companions (IC adults) and those who did not (NIC adults). In two studies, we expand on the existing research and investigate to what extent ICs influence socioemotional tendencies, responses to exclusion, and creativity. We predicted that IC adults would 1) exhibit better coping skills after being excluded and 2) be more creative than NIC adults. Our social coping hypothesis was partially supported; IC adults did not display reduced self-esteem after exclusion, whereas NIC adults did report such declines. Our creativity hypothesis was also supported, such that IC adults scored higher on two creativity measures.
Taken together, these studies can elucidate potential benefits of imaginary companions beyond childhood. Rather than being symptoms of social incompetence, we argue that ICs are the product of a creative imagination and a healthy social appetite.
Early childhood is a unique and fascinating period in which children cultivate cognitive skills, exercise their impressive imaginations, and begin to form personal relationships. As they learn to navigate through their social worlds, many also develop imaginary playmates or companions. An imaginary companion (IC) is typically defined as a personified object (e.g. doll, teddy bear) or a completely invisible character, emerges somewhere in early childhood between the ages of 3 and 4, and usually disappears before age 10 (Bouldin & Pratt, 1999; Gleason, Jarudi, & Cheek, 2003). Though the numbers vary significantly, research shows that up to 65 percent of young children report having imaginary companions (Singer & Singer, 1990; Taylor & Carlson, 2004). These “invisible relationships” likely influence children’s social worlds and personal identity, just as a real relationship with another peer would impact a child’s makeup and social orientation.
Imaginary Companions in Childhood
The exact function of imaginary companions is somewhat unclear. Some researchers argue that children develop imaginary companions in order to compensate for inadequate social relationships and low acceptance by peers. For instance, Harter and Chao (1992) found that preschoolers with ICs were perceived as less socially competent than their peers on three dimensions (cognitive competence, physical competence, peer acceptance), based on anecdotal feedback from their teachers. In a study on 7-year old students, children with ICs also indicated lower psychological wellbeing, fewer friends, and lower self-image compared to children without ICs (Hoff, 2005b). Thus, creating an imaginary friend may protect children who exhibit poor social skills. Under make-believe circumstances, socially incompetent children can regain control of their surroundings and even counteract feelings of helplessness (Caplan & Caplan, 1973; Gleason, 2004). Imaginary companions can also buffer the hurt of exclusion and loneliness and offer moral guidance in challenging situations (Hoff, 2005a). By externalizing their negative traits, children feel more comforted and less concerned with their shortcomings. They also always have someone to accompany them when other friends are not available. For this reason, studies often consider sibling number and birth order when analyzing a child’s imaginary companion experience, reasoning that children who have little company will create fantasy playmates to account for boredom or lack of stimulation. Firstborns and only children, for instance, tend to develop ICs more frequently than children with more and older siblings (Bouldin & Pratt, 1999; Gleason, Sebanc, & Hartup, 2000). Imaginary companions could therefore fulfill a need for healthy relationships.
Alternatively, imaginary companions may reflect greater social motivation rather than a lack of social skills, and may actually serve to enhance these skills among socially driven children. Research from this perspective suggests that the extra practice, or “rehearsal,” with imaginary playmates affords more refined interpersonal skills, social awareness, expressive language, and adaptability in real interactions (Somers & Yawkey, 1984). For example, Taylor and Carlson (1997) found that 3 and 4-year-old children with ICs demonstrated better theory of mind than peers without ICs, suggesting that children with imaginary companions may possess more advanced socio-cognitive skills. A follow up study showed that theory of mind at age 3 or 4 also predicted emotion understanding three years later (Taylor, Carlson, Maring, Gerow, & Charley, 2004). Around adults, children with ICs are also more sociable, less shy, and more cooperative (Singer & Singer, 1990). Consequently, imaginary companions could be a mere extension or elaboration of existing friendships with human peers. They serve as a constructive force that can promote social adjustment, empathy, advanced social strategies, and intellectual prowess (Jalongo, 1984; Somers & Yawkey, 1984).
Importantly, recent experiments on social dispositions in children also find that children with ICs are no more likely to be socially dysfunctional than children without ICs (Turner, 1973). In a study by Gleason (2004), preschool children were interviewed about their experiences with ICs and were subsequently evaluated on peer acceptance. Having an IC did not correlate with low peer acceptance, indicating that children with ICs are socially similar to the rest of their peers. Similarly, an analysis of anxiety and fear levels in children with and without ICs showed that IC children scored higher on certain subscales of anxiety, but still fell well within the normal range for their age group (Bouldin & Pratt, 2002). There were also no differences in specific fears between groups, nor in temperament style. Manosevitz and colleagues (1973) also found that children with ICs appeared happier during play and were more verbally communicative than other children. Although children with ICs were more likely to play alone, the researchers argue that ICs can alleviate situational loneliness resulting from an absence of interaction, specifically among children with no siblings. These examples support the notion that children with ICs are socially adept, and thus, an apparent lack of social connection may be a function of their objective situation (i.e. fewer siblings or less time with them) rather than a reflection of weak social skills. Given that children with ICs are fully aware that their imaginary companionships are make-believe and are more likely to engage with human peers over their ICs, imaginary companions may serve as temporary placeholders for other relationships (Hoff, 2005a; Manosevitz, Prentice, & Wilson, 1973).
Despite the range of knowledge of imaginary companions during childhood, little research has focused exclusively on adult populations. Only several studies have investigated the relationship between having an IC during childhood and adult personality or social disposition. One study examined interpersonal styles among college women with ICs, under the assumption that children with ICs are more accommodating toward others’ needs (Gleason et al., 2003). They showed that adults with ICs in childhood were significantly more likely to embody a “toward others” style than an “away from others” style. Thus, adults with former imaginary companions may be more attuned to others, consistent with the finding that children with ICs exhibit better theory of mind and understanding of emotion (Taylor et al., 2004). Kidd and colleagues (2010) also investigated interpersonal styles, but they found no difference in social closeness between groups, contradicting previous evidence that children and adults with ICs maintain high levels of interpersonal attentiveness. Hence, further research is needed to uncover a more stable correlation between imaginary companionship and social skills, both in childhood and adulthood.
One area that still deserves more attention is whether imaginary companions develop as a response to social exclusion or rejection, and whether children can utilize their relationship with their IC to buffer or soothe hurt feelings. In many cases, actively being rejected (e.g. significant other breaking up with you) can be related to antisocial behaviors, such as withdrawal from social contact or anxiety (Molden, Lucas, Gardner, Dean, & Knowles, 2009). Exclusion (e.g., being ignored or left out), on the other hand, may actually incentivize people to reconnect, especially among individuals with a higher need to belong. Essentially, the implicit nature of being ignored or excluded can prompt people to strategize new ways of reengaging with others, whereas the bluntness of rejection can hinder such motivations. Given that children with ICs are potentially more creative, empathetic, and socially motivated than their peers, they may use exclusion as an opportunity to practice social coping skills instead of withdrawing from others. This social motivation, coupled with situational loneliness, may provoke more advanced social strategizing since ICs offer more chances for controlled “rehearsal” during childhood (Hoff, 2005a).
To date, however, little evidence exists on the subject of social strategizing among adults. Bonne and colleagues (1999) suggest that imaginary companionships may denote emotional vulnerability in the face of high-stress situations like exclusion, since high school students who had ICs in childhood displayed higher levels of psychological distress (i.e. depression, anxiety, paranoid ideation) and immature coping mechanisms (e.g. relying on a charm or amulet to alleviate stress). These findings counter earlier theories of social competence, but are limited because most research has previously relied on self-report evaluations rather than objective tests of coping with exclusion. More empirical evidence is needed to ascertain the relation between ICs in childhood and adult social coping. The present research examines the extent to which adults who had ICs are less susceptible to exclusion or can use memories of ICs to buffer themselves against exclusion, based on the assumption that imaginary companions foster adaptive coping strategies among creative children with a dispositionally higher need to belong. In this way, adults who had ICs may respond better to social exclusion because they possess a superior repertoire of social coping skills that they may have acquired through this greater “rehearsal,” which we call our social coping hypothesis. An alternative way in which adults who had ICs may respond better to exclusion is that they can use reminders of their imaginary companions from childhood to buffer the pain of social exclusion, which we call our social buffering hypothesis.
In adulthood, people may also interact with and even cherish imaginary characters, just as children do with ICs. These interactions are termed parasocial attachments, which are defined as “relationships” with fictional characters that feel real (Gardner & Knowles, 2008). Like imaginary companions, parasocial attachments act as “social surrogates” that can emerge from poor relationships with others. In fact, propensity to form parasocial attachments is correlated with attachment style, such that anxious-ambivalent people are most likely to form these bonds, while avoidants are the least likely (Cole & Leets, 1999). Anxious-ambivalents also anticipate more negative responses when their parasocial relationship is threatened, similar to the reaction to a threatened social relationship with another person (Cohen, 2004). In the present research, we are interested in the manifestation of these imaginary tendencies in adulthood. Because imaginary companionship and parasocial attachment could be equally motivated by a need to belong or insufficient social involvement, adults who had ICs as children may be more likely to engage with fictional characters once their IC disappears. We propose that, like imaginary companionships, these bonds emerge from a desire to connect with others in a situation that does not offer many options (e.g. moving to a new city by yourself), as opposed to chronic loneliness or social inadequacy.
Another popular theme in recent literature explores the link between imaginary companionship and creativity. Researchers studying younger populations often find that children with ICs demonstrate superior creativity, higher rates of fantasy or pretend play, and even greater intelligence (Bouldin & Pratt, 1999; Hoff, 2005b; but see Manosevitz, Fling, & Prentice, 1977; Pearson, Rouse, Doswell, Ainsworth, Dawson, Simms, Edwards, & Faulconbridge, 2001). Essentially, children can use their ICs as a resource or outlet for creative thinking and discovery, much like Calvin does in the classic comic, Calvin and Hobbes. This development during childhood likely transcends into adulthood, and some of the research on adult populations has considered this effect as a result. Schaefer (1969) assessed creativity among adolescents to determine whether imaginary companionships are characteristic of generally creative people, even into early adulthood. He found that students who engaged in creative writing were more likely to have had ICs in childhood, though there was no difference between adolescents participating in the fine arts. In a study with college-age adults, participants who formerly had ICs scored significantly higher on a self-report measure of creativity than those who did not have ICs, which reflects similar trends among children with ICs (Kidd, Rogers, & Rogers, 2010). Indeed, imaginary companions may represent precursors of a greater creative capacity, since the make-believe aspect of imaginary companionship requires children to construct new play habits, characterize an imaginary figure, and even invent entire worlds in which they interact with their imaginary companions.
Because of the discrepancies and incongruent findings in the existing literature, it is important to continue studying the personality differences between adults who had imaginary companions and those who did not. The social profile of adults, for example, is one aspect that is often overlooked in research on imaginary companions, in spite of earlier studies on children’s peer acceptance and self-concept (Harter & Chao, 1992; Hoff, 2005b). In the present research, we will explore the ways in which imaginary companions shape or contribute to human social and cognitive development. Specifically, we aim to demystify the link between imaginary companionship and socioemotional orientation, including the need to belong, sensitivity to rejection and exclusion, and loneliness. We will also look at patterns of creativity and adults’ propensity to form parasocial attachments, or “relationships” with fictional characters (Gardner & Knowles, 2008). Ultimately, this research will add to the knowledge of imaginary companions’ impact on adult life beyond childhood.
The first study explores the relationship between imaginary companions in childhood and adult behaviors and disposition. Participants took an online survey in which they described their experiences with childhood ICs and answered personal questions, including measures of their creativity, need to belong, sensitivity to rejection, social anxiety, and loneliness. Our goal was to distinguish between IC and NIC adults in terms of their personality traits, creative potential, and social profiles. We predicted that IC adults would demonstrate social competence rather than inadequacy, comparable to previous findings in younger populations. The second study elaborates on the hypothesis that a relationship with an imaginary companion fosters a social buffer and better resilience to exclusion. Participants in a lab session relived moments from their childhood after playing a computer game that induced feelings of social exclusion. We predicted that IC adults would demonstrate greater recovery and better coping skills, via mood and global self-esteem, compared to NIC adults.
In the first study, adults with and without childhood imaginary companions took part in an online survey for payment. They were asked to recall personal anecdotes from experiences with their ICs, and answered several questions about personality and socioemotional orientation. We paid close attention to socioemotional aspects such as the need to belong, loneliness, rejection sensitivity, and parasocial attachment, based on the notion that ICs may develop to compensate for poor social relationships in childhoods, or alternatively may reflect a more socially engaged and accommodating style. Additionally, we tested the theory that adults who had ICs are more creative, open, and possibly more extraverted and agreeable provided that they are more socially motivated.
Because ICs in childhood potentially reflect greater need or desire for social interaction, we expected individuals with ICs in childhood to be dispositionally higher in the need to belong. Furthermore, given the ability of ICs to act as social surrogates in childhood, we predicted that individuals with ICs would also be more likely to utilize social surrogates as adults – in other words, to have higher parasocial attachment scores. The patterns of other measures help disambiguate the extent to which IC reflects poorer or greater social skills. To the extent that ICs reflect poor social skills and/or low peer acceptance, we would expect those individuals with ICs to remain higher in rejection sensitivity, social anxiety, and possibly in adult loneliness. However, if ICs reflect a child with a more socially accommodating style and more advanced interpersonal skills, we would expect individuals with ICs to be no different on rejection sensitivity and loneliness, but potentially higher in extraversion and agreeableness. Finally, adults with ICs should score higher on self-report measures of creativity and openness to experience than NIC adults. This hypothesis parallels previous research on child and adult populations that suggests enhanced creativity in children and adults with imaginary companions.
One hundred and seventy-two participants (100 female, 72 male, Mage = 30.35, SD = 7.17, age range = 19-48) took part in the study online and received compensation upon completion. Each participant self-identified with one of three groups: 1) people who had an imaginary companion in childhood and vividly remember having one (IC participants), 2) people who had an imaginary companion but do not remember having one (i.e. parents told them later in life), or 3) people who never had an imaginary companion (NIC participants). For the purposes of the study, we excluded participants in the second group from analyses (those who did not remember having ICs), in order to make the strongest comparison between the first and third group. Of the two remaining categories, 106 participants had imaginary companions (IC participants) and 66 participants never had an imaginary companion (NIC participants). Overall we found a 32.29% prevalence rate of IC participants within the survey sample, and a 61.15% prevalence rate of NIC participants. Within the IC group, 19 participants (17.9%) reported having a personified object during childhood, 60 participants (56.6%) reported having an invisible character, and 25 (23.6%) reported having both kinds of imaginary companions at some point during childhood. On average, participants’ imaginary companionships lasted 4.04 years. The mean starting age of the relationship (when the IC first emerged) was 2.81 years, and the mean ending age (when the IC disappeared) was 8.73 years.
Need to belong. The 10-item Need to Belong Scale (NTBS; Leary, Kelly, Cottrell, & Schreindorfer, 2007) assesses people’s dispositional belonging needs. Participants rate how much they agree or disagree with statements such as “I want other people to accept me” on a 5-point Likert scale from 1(strongly disagree) to 5(strongly agree). The reliability for this sample was a = .89.
Rejection sensitivity. The 9-item Adult-Rejection Sensitivity Questionnaire (A-RSQ; Berenson, Gyurak, Ayduk, Downey, Garner, Mogg, Bradley, & Pine, 2009), assesses people’s propensity to “anxiously expect, readily perceive, and overreact to” social rejection (Downey & Feldman, 1996). Participants rate the extent to which they are concerned about someone’s reaction to a proposed scenario (e.g. “You ask your supervisor for help with a problem you have been having at work”), a = .83, as well as how likely that someone is to be supportive (a = .78) using 6-point Likert scales.
Loneliness. The 3-item Loneliness Scale (Hughes, Waite, Hawkley, & Cacioppo, 2004) assesses people’s subjective feelings of loneliness. Participants rate how frequently they feel they lack companionship, feel left out, and feel isolated from others on a 3-point Likert scale from 1(hardly ever) to 3(often). The reliability for this sample was a = .83.
Social anxiety. We included four items to assess participants’ tendency to feel uncomfortable, worried, or anxious about their interactions with other people. Participants reported the extent to which they were socially anxious both as children (e.g. “As a child, I often feared that I was being judged negatively,”), a = .82, and as adults (“I am a socially anxious person”), a = .83, using a 5-point Likert scale from 1(strongly disagree) to 5(strongly agree).
Parasocial attachment. The 17-item Parasocial Interaction Scale (Cole & Leets, 1999) assesses people’s tendency to form attachments with their favorite TV show characters. Participants indicate the extent to which they agree or disagree with each statement (e.g., “I think my favorite TV character is like an old friend” and “I feel sorry for my favorite TV character when he/she makes a mistake”) with respect to their favorite TV character, on a 5-point Likert scale from 1(strongly disagree) to 5(strongly agree). The reliability for this sample was a = .89.
Creativity. Creativity was assessed using the self-report Gough Personality Scale (Gough, 1979), which includes a list of 30 adjectives associated with creativity (e.g. informal, humorous, wide interests) and words associated with a lack of creativity (e.g. commonplace, well-mannered). Participants select the adjectives they feel best describe themselves. Total scores are calculated by summing the number of creative adjectives and subtracting the non-creative words.
Personality. Personality was assessed using the abbreviated, Ten-Item Personality Inventory (TIPI; Gosling, Rentfrow, & Swann, 2003). The TIPI assesses the Big Five Personality Dimensions: extraversion (a = .72), agreeableness (a = .54), conscientiousness (a = .70), neuroticism (a = .81), and openness to experience (a = .43). Participants rate how much they agree or disagree with each pair of adjectives (e.g. critical, quarrelsome; sympathetic, warm) on a 7-point Likert scale from 1(disagree strongly) to 7(agree strongly). In analysis, we paid special attention to the items measuring openness to experience, extraversion, and agreeableness.
Participants took the survey online. After informed consent, they completed a brief screening process that identified whether or not they had an imaginary companion during childhood. Next, participants completed measures of personality, creativity, and social orientation (e.g. need to belong, rejection sensitivity, loneliness, parasocial attachment, described above). Participants also indicated their levels of social anxiety as children and adults, how many friends and siblings they had growing up, and how much time they spent playing with their friends and siblings. The survey ended after this assessment for NIC participants; they were thanked for their time and debriefed on the purpose of the study.
Following these measures, IC participants recalled experiences from their childhood involving their imaginary companion. Sample questions included, “What are some activities you did with your imaginary friend that you didn't do with others?” and “What did your imaginary friend look like?” These descriptive questions accompanied more open-ended questions about the emotional benefits of having an imaginary companion. For example, “Why did you seek out the presence of your imaginary friend?” Participants then chose from a list of options that described the most common functions of imaginary companions (e.g. “For social connection when I felt lonely” and “To alleviate boredom”). These responses help to illuminate the causes and long-term effects of having imaginary companions.
We expected to find significant differences in the socioemotional dispositions between adults who had imaginary companions (IC adults) and adults who did not (NIC adults). For instance, if the IC group scored higher on measures of rejection sensitivity and loneliness, it would imply that ICs develop in children who are less socially competent. On the other hand, higher scores on the need to belong, agreeableness, extraversion, and parasocial attachment measures would imply that imaginary companions develop in children who are not only socially competent, but also have a creative imagination and a healthy “social appetite.” Our second hypothesis predicted that IC adults would display more creativity and higher rates of openness than their NIC counterparts. This finding would be consistent with previous research suggesting that developing an imaginary companion stimulates creativity, and that IC children are more likely to be socially oriented.
Our first hypothesis tested social competence, given previous research suggesting that ICs may derive from poor social skills or insufficient relationships with others. On the contrary, we predicted that adults who had imaginary companions in childhood would not differ from adults without imaginary companions on measures of loneliness, rejection sensitivity, social anxiety, and parasocial attachment, signaling social proficiency in adulthood. We also expected adults with ICs to score higher on measures of need to belong, extraversion, and agreeableness based on the theory that adults with ICs are more attuned to others’ needs. Similarly, adults with ICs should not report significantly deficient social networks from childhood, despite earlier research arguing that children with ICs have fewer siblings and fewer friends than children without ICs.
Socioemotional profiles. We conducted an analysis of variance (ANOVA) test comparing IC and NIC groups on loneliness, rejection sensitivity, social anxiety, and parasocial attachment. As predicted, we found no significant differences between groups for loneliness, rejection sensitivity, or social anxiety in adulthood, all p’s > .05. To further test our social motivation theory, we conducted analysis of variance (ANOVA) tests comparing IC and NIC groups on: need to belong, parasocial attachment, extraversion, and agreeableness. Contrary to our hypothesis, there were no significant differences between groups for need to belong (F(1,170) = 2.09, p > .05, ηp2 = .01), although the group means suggest that IC participants (M = 3.42, SD = .70) may demonstrate higher need to belong than NIC participants (M = 3.26, SD = .77), see Figure 1. There was a marginally significant effect for parasocial attachment, such that IC participants (M = 3.69, SD = .66) reported slightly higher scores than NIC participants (M = 3.49, SD = .76), F(1,170) = 3.08, p = .08, ηp2 = .02 (see Figure 2). There was also a trending effect for extraversion (F(1,170) = 2.34, p = .13, ηp2 = .01) and agreeableness (F(1,170) = 2.70, p = .10, ηp2 = .02), with IC participants scoring higher than the NIC group in both cases (see Figures 3 and 4).
Social networks in childhood. For more insight into the functions of ICs, we first looked at the most common reasons for seeking the IC’s company for participants who had ICs (see Figure 5). Our analyses revealed that social connection (45% prevalence), boredom (42%), and being alone (38%) were the most common motivations. Interestingly, all three are closely linked to social relationships and imply a desire to connect with others, which complement previous research on the roles of ICs in children. An analysis of variance (ANOVA) test comparing social anxiety in childhood between IC and NIC groups revealed no significant differences, p > .05. There were differences between groups for number of friends in childhood, with IC participants (M = 5.57, SD = 3.59) reporting fewer friends than NIC participants (M = 8.52, SD = 14.57), F(1,170) = 3.96, p < .05, ηp2 =.02. However, there were no differences in time spent playing with friends, p > .05. Participants also indicated how many siblings they had and how much time they spent playing with siblings. There were no differences in number of siblings (p > .05); however, IC participants spent significantly less time playing with siblings in childhood, F(1,169) = 5.12, p < .05, ηp2 = .03. Taken together, we find little evidence of social incompetence given that the social networks of participants in both groups appear normal and intact.
Our second hypothesis examined the extent to which adults with ICs are more creative and open to experiences, given the existing research in both child and adult populations that posits a relationship between imaginary companionship and creativity. Just as children with ICs are more likely to engage in fantasy play, adults with ICs should reflect greater creativity and report more imaginative behavior in adulthood. We expected adults with ICs to spend more time on imaginative activities (e.g. creative writing, daydreaming), and likewise, less time on passive activities (e.g. watching TV, surfing the web) than adults without ICs.
We conducted an analysis of variance (ANOVA) test comparing self-reported creativity and openness to experience between groups. As predicted, IC participants (M = 4.61, SD = 3.74) scored higher on our measure of creativity than NIC participants (M = 3.36, SD = 3.81), F(1,170) = 4.48, p < .05, ηp2 = .03 (see Figure 6). IC participants (M = 5.50, SD = 1.09) were also more open to experiences than NIC participants (M = 4.80, SD = 1.18), F(1,170) = 15.63, p < .001, ηp2 = .08 (see Figure 7). At the end of the study, participants reported what percentage of free time they typically spend engaging in imaginative, structured, and passive activities. This hypothesis was supported, in that IC participants (M = 33.09, SD = 22.81) spend more time engaging in imaginative behavior than NIC participants (M = 20.05, SD = 17.51), F(1,170) = 15.69, p < .001, ηp2 = .09. Similarly, IC participants (M = 36.13, SD = 19.54) spend significantly less time engaging in passive behaviors than NIC participants (M = 44.68, SD = 22.77), F(1,170) = 6.79, p < .05, ηp2 = .04 (see Figure 8).
Results from the first study indicate that adults who had imaginary companions are no more likely to be socially anxious, lonely, or sensitive to rejection than adults who did not have imaginary companions as children. These findings partially support our social competence hypothesis, which challenges the notion that imaginary companions develop in children with poor social functioning. In fact, our analyses on the need to belong, parasocial attachment, agreeableness, and extraversion imply that IC adults may actually be more socially oriented in adulthood than NIC adults, given that they reported marginally higher rates of social motivation. Hence, we argue that historical accounts of low peer acceptance and loneliness should be reevaluated or altogether set aside. While children with ICs report less frequent play time with siblings and fewer friends, our data suggest that ICs are created not to compensate for deficient relationships but rather to satisfy a greater appetite for social interaction. Imaginary companions may merely serve as temporary substitutes when other social outlets are not available. In Study 2, we continue investigating this notion of social adaptability and look at potential differences in emotional intelligence between IC and NIC adults.
Our creativity hypothesis was also supported, based on the findings that IC adults scored higher on measures of self-report creativity and openness to experience. Compared to NIC adults, IC adults also engage in imaginative activities more frequently in adulthood, which could be an extension or continuation of such make-believe behaviors in childhood. This evidence further contributes to the theory that adults who created imaginary companions in childhood are more creative than NIC adults even after their IC disappears. We must consider the self-report nature of our measures, however. It is possible that IC adults are merely more confident in their openness and creative abilities. Therefore, we included a more objective measure of creativity in Study 2 to follow up on the initial patterned observed in the first study.
All things considered, adults who had imaginary companions in childhood appear to have functional and healthy social networks, and they may even exercise their creative potential more so than adults who did not have imaginary companions. Our results also indicate that IC adults could perhaps be more motivated to connect with others, employing the social strategies they developed through their imaginary companionship as a child. Further research is needed, though, to clarify the relationship between having an IC and social coping in adulthood. It is still unknown whether ICs can help buffer the hurt of exclusion, or whether imaginary companionships yield more adaptive coping mechanisms altogether. In the subsequent study, we examine the theory that ICs offer social advantages in exclusionary circumstances.
In Study 2, we were interested in assessing the degree to which ICs contribute to social coping skills in adulthood. Given the findings from the first study, we turned our attention away from social incompetence and broadened our social competence hypothesis to incorporate responses to exclusion, based on the assumption that ICs may strengthen coping strategies in the event of being excluded. At a young age, children can rely on imaginary companions for social rehearsal and strategizing; ICs afford them the opportunity to enact scenarios and choose desirable outcomes. Adults no longer turn to their ICs for social exploration, though they may utilize these same skills in everyday interactions. Therefore, the aim of Study 2 was to supplement findings from Study 1 by examining whether IC adults employ different or superior coping strategies after being excluded. It is possible that, if ICs reflect a creative coping mechanism in otherwise socially skilled children, as adults they may also be better equipped to cope broadly with rejection. We therefore measured the extent to which IC adults are inherently buffered from exclusion, which would imply that these coping strategies are more ingrained in IC adults and are not dependent on priming tasks. Alternatively, to the extent that the IC itself served as a social stress buffer, they may only show better recovery if reminded of that IC. The current study measured responses to exclusion both before and after IC adults were primed with memories of their IC, to examine whether broad coping (better recovery directly after exclusion), IC buffering (better recovery after being reminded of the IC), or both may influence how adults recovered from a social exclusion experience.
Study 2 employed a 2x2 between-subjects design, in which participants with and without former imaginary companions were either socially excluded or socially accepted in a lab task. Following the manipulation, participants reported their current mood and self-esteem, and then wrote a short essay about memories from childhood in which they were playing alone. This task was intended to induce memories of imaginary companions in IC adults in order to aid in social stress buffering. Participants later reported their mood and self-esteem for a second time, providing a comparison before and after the essay. According to our social coping hypothesis, IC adults should be overall less sensitive to exclusion via measures of mood and self-esteem, even before the priming task. This would signal better coping styles in a stressful situation, regardless of being reminded of an imaginary companion to boost resiliency. Alternatively, if ICs can serve as a social buffer, we would expect IC adults primed with memories of their imaginary companion to recover more quickly after social exclusion on measures of mood and self-esteem, compared to NIC adults.
Like Study 1, we also looked at the potential differences in socioemotional profiles between IC and NIC adults. We excluded measures of social incompetence since we found no differences in our online sample, and instead focused on need to belong and parasocial attachment. We predicted that IC adults would demonstrate a higher need to belong and higher rates of parasocial attachment, based on the tentative results from Study 1. Additionally, IC adults should report higher scores on a measure of emotional intelligence than NIC adults, reflecting a “toward-others,” accommodating social orientation. People with high emotional intelligence demonstrate a unique ability to monitor others’ emotions intuitively, and we expect IC adults to be more attuned to others’ needs given that children with ICs exhibit enhanced theory of mind and greater social adaptability. For creativity, we added a supplemental, objective measure in order to reinforce the claim that IC adults are more creative than NIC adults. Our hypothesis was consistent with Study 1, and we predicted that IC adults would receive higher scores on both the self-report and objective measures of creativity.
Ninety-eight undergraduates at Northwestern University (59 female, 39 male, Mage = 19.78, SD = 1.91, age range = 18-29) participated in the study and received course credit or payment upon completion. Sixteen participants were excluded from the analyses for indicating suspicion, yielding a total of eighty-two participants (49 female, 33 male, Mage = 19.69, SD = 1.72, age range = 18-28). Participants were assigned to one of two groups based on mass testing or prescreening procedures: 1) people who had an imaginary companion in childhood and vividly remember having one and 2) people who never had an imaginary companion.1
Cyberball activity. Cyberball is a virtual ball-toss game intended to induce feelings of social exclusion or acceptance in participants (Williams, Cheung, & Choi, 2000). The participant acts as a player in a simple game of catch with other computerized “players.” In the social exclusion condition, the computerized players begin to only toss the ball between themselves after a few throws, while in the acceptance condition, the computerized players will throw the ball to the human participant at a fair and regular rate.
Self-esteem. Following Cyberball, before and after the essay component, participants completed the Single-Item Self-Esteem Scale (SISE) in order to immediately capture the effects of acceptance versus exclusion (Robins, Hendin, & Trzesniewski, 2001). This scale contains one item: “I have high self-esteem,” rated on 5-point scale ranging from 1(not very true of me) to 5(very true of me).
Manipulation checks. We included two manipulation checks for our Cyberball manipulation: mood and feelings of rejection. We used four dichotomous scales (hurt/happy, tense/relaxed, angry/calm, unpleasant/pleasant) to measure mood, each with a 9-point Likert scale where 9 indicated the most positive mood. Given that reliability across all four scales was high (α = .86), we aggregated them into one composite mood measure during analysis. To assess feelings of social rejection, participants indicated their feelings of rejection after the Cyberball manipulation on a similar 9-point Likert scale ranging from 1(rejected) to 9(accepted).
Social measures. These were similar to those in Study 1, and included the Need to Belong Scale (Leary et al., 2007), a = .85, and the Parasocial Interaction Scale (Cole & Leets, 1999), a = .89. We did not include measures of social incompetence (i.e. loneliness, social anxiety, sensitivity to rejection) given that we did not find evidence for the social inadequacy hypothesis in our first study. For Study 2, we added an 11-item subscale of the Self-Report Emotional Intelligence (SEI) scale, which pertains to emotional regulation of others (Schutte, Malouff, Hall, Haggerty, Cooper, Golden, & Dornheim, 1998). This scale measures participants’ emotional intelligence with respect to “other-management.” Examples of items include, “I know when to speak about my personal problems to others,” and “Other people find it easy to confide in me.” Participants indicate the extent to which they agree with each statement on a 5-point Likert scale ranging from 1(strongly disagree) to 5(strongly agree). The reliability for this sample was a = .76.
Non-social and creativity measures. Like Study 1, we included the Gough Personality Scale (Gough, 1979) to measure self-report creativity, as well as an objective measure of creativity called the Modes of Transportation task (Hirt, Levine, McDonald, & Melton, 1997). For this task participants are asked to list as many modes of transportation they can think of within 2 minutes. The creativity of each item is then rated along a 5-point scale with 1 representing the most common responses (e.g. car, bus, plane) and 5 representing the most novel responses (e.g. imagination, a good book). In addition to the total score of items, we also calculated the raw number of items each participant listed. For Big Five Personality Traits, we included only the openness to experience (a = .51) item from the Ten-Item Personality Inventory (Gosling et al., 2003), since there were no significant differences in extraversion and agreeableness from the first study.
After informed consent, each study session began with several questions about childhood to evoke the proper mindset pertaining to childhood activities and behaviors. For example, participants reported how many siblings they have, where they grew up, whether they used a comfort object as a child (e.g. blanket, pacifier), and how often they played sports or video games during childhood. After these questions, each participant engaged in the Cyberball task; participants were randomly assigned to the exclusion or acceptance condition. Immediately following this manipulation, participants rated their self-esteem (SISE), mood, and feelings of rejection in the current moment, and continued with the writing task.
During the writing portion, participants composed a short essay about how they played as children. Specifically, we were interested in their habits while playing alone, and the kinds of activities they were drawn to. We included this exercise as a priming task for IC individuals since they were prompted to write about their imaginary companion. NIC participants served as a control group since they wrote about other activities from childhood (e.g. video games, building Lego sets). Finally, participants once again completed measures of self-esteem, mood, feelings of rejection, and the social and non-social measures described above. We thanked participants for their time and debriefed them at the end.
For Study 2 we grouped our dependent variables into categories that aligned with specific hypotheses. Our social coping hypothesis predicted that IC adults would be less sensitive to exclusion immediately after the Cyberball manipulation, even before writing the essay. To explore this hypothesis, we assessed participants’ feelings of exclusion, mood, and self-esteem after the Cyberball game, but before writing the essay. Our social buffering hypothesis predicted that IC adults could use memories of their imaginary companion to alleviate the hurt of exclusion, which we induced through the essay task. To explore the social buffering hypothesis, we assessed whether participants’ feelings of exclusion, mood, and self-esteem changed after writing the essay in order to determine whether the activation of imaginary companions could serve to alleviate the hurt of exclusion. We also analyzed post-essay effects, though we found no significant differences between groups or condition and therefore excluded these findings altogether. To investigate socioemotional profiles between groups, we compared measures of need to belong and parasocial attachment between IC and NIC adults. For our creativity hypothesis, we grouped self-report and objective creativity with openness to experience like in Study 1, since both are highly correlated with one another.
Feelings of Rejection. We conducted an analysis of variance (ANOVA) on participants’ feelings of exclusion as a function of condition (exclusion vs. acceptance) and whether or not participants had imaginary companions in childhood (IC vs. NIC) As expected, we found a main effect of condition, such that participants who were excluded in Cyberball (M = 4.57, SD = 1.83) reported lower feelings of acceptance than those who were accepted (M = 6.73, SD = 1.47), F(1,77) = 34.28, p < .001, ηp2 = .31 (see Figure 9). We found no main effect of IC vs. NIC (F(1,77) = .55, p > .05, ηp2 = .01) and no interaction (F(1,77) = .04, p >.05, ηp2 < .001).
Mood. Our social coping hypothesis predicted that IC adults would be less sensitive to exclusion immediately after the Cyberball manipulation, even before writing the essay. To test this, we conducted an analysis of variance (ANOVA) on participants’ mood as a function of condition (exclusion vs. acceptance) and whether or not participants had imaginary companions in childhood (IC vs. NIC). For mood, we found another main effect of condition, such that participants who were excluded (M = 5.20, SD = 1.66) reported lower positive mood than those who were accepted (M = 6.79, SD = .85), F(1,77) = 30.23, p < .001, ηp2 = .28 (see Figure 10). There was no main effect of IC vs. NIC (F(1,77) = .10, p > .05, ηp2 = .001) and no interaction (F(1,77) = .06, p > .05, ηp2 = .001).
Social Coping Hypothesis (Pre-Essay Effects)
Self-esteem. Our social coping hypothesis predicted that IC adults would be less sensitive to exclusion immediately after the Cyberball manipulation, even before writing the essay. To test this, we conducted an analysis of variance (ANOVA) on participants’ self-esteem as a function of condition (exclusion vs. acceptance) and whether or not participants had imaginary companions in childhood (IC vs. NIC) There was no main effect of condition (F(1,77) = 2.08, p > .05, ηp2 = .03) nor IC vs. NIC (F(1,77) = .06, p > .05, ηp2 = .001) for self-esteem, although we found a trending interaction between condition and IC vs. NIC, F(1,77) = 2.84, p = .10, ηp2 = .04 (see Figure 11). We then conducted several post hoc independent t-tests examining the differences in self-esteem within IC and NIC groups. For NIC participants, we found a significant difference between condition for NIC participants, such that those who were excluded (M = 3.00, SD = .97) reported lower self-esteem than accepted participants (M = 3.68, SD = .75), t(41) = 2.60, p < .05, d = .78. By contrast, for IC participants, those who were excluded (M = 3.42, SD = .96) did not differ from those who were accepted (M = 3.37, SD = 1.21), t(36) = -.15, p > .05, d = .05. Taken together, these findings offer partial support for our social coping hypothesis. Specifically, whereas NIC participants who were excluded showed declines in their self-esteem, IC participants who were excluded seemed to be protected from such declines.
Social Buffering Hypothesis (Post-Essay Effects)
Our social buffering hypothesis predicted that IC adults could use memories of their imaginary companion to alleviate the hurt of exclusion, which we induced through the essay task. After completing the essay, participants again indicated their current feelings of rejection, mood, and self-esteem. We would expect IC adults to recover more quickly from exclusion after writing the essay, compared to NIC adults who cannot rely on an IC for social comfort.
Feelings of Exclusion. We conducted a mixed analysis of variance (ANOVA) on participants’ feelings of exclusion with condition (exclusion vs. acceptance) and imaginary companion group (IC vs. NIC) as between-subjects factors and time point (pre vs. post essay) as a within-subjects factor. We found a main effect of time point (F(1,63) = 23.62, p < .001, ηp2 = .27) such that participants across both conditions showed greater feelings of acceptance after writing the essay. There was an interaction between condition and time point (F(1,63) = 15.74, p < .001, ηp2 = .20), such that participants who were excluded through Cyberball reported higher feelings of acceptance post-essay (M = 6.24, SD = 1.48) compared to pre-essay feelings of acceptance (M = 4.49, SD = 1.89), p < .001. However, we found no interaction between IC vs. NIC and time point, F(1,63) = .20, p > .05, ηp2 = .003.
Mood. We conducted a mixed analysis of variance (ANOVA) on participants’ mood with condition (exclusion vs. acceptance) and imaginary companion group (IC vs. NIC) as between-subjects factors and time point (pre vs. post essay) as a within-subjects factor. There was a main effect of time point, such that participants across both conditions showed increases in positive mood after writing the essay, F(1,63) = 47.08, p < .001, ηp2 = .43. We also found an interaction between condition and time point (F(1,63) = 15.74, p < .001, ηp2 = .20) such that participants who were excluded reported higher positive mood post-essay (M = 6.67, SD = 1.09) compared to pre-essay (M = 5.14, SD = 1.58), and participants who were accepted also reported higher positive mood post-essay (M = 7.27, SD = 1.03) compared to pre-essay (M = 6.87, SD = .81), both p’s < .05. We found no interaction between IC/NIC and time point, F(1,63) = 1.27, p > .05, ηp2 = .02.
Self-Esteem. We conducted a mixed analysis of variance (ANOVA) on participants’ self-esteem with condition (exclusion vs. acceptance) and imaginary companion group (IC vs. NIC) as between-subjects factors and time point (pre vs. post essay) as a within-subjects factor. There was a main effect of time point, such that participants across both conditions showed increases in self-esteem after writing the essay, F(1,63) = 7.19, p < .05, ηp2 = .10. We also found an interaction between condition and time point (F(1,63) = 4.53, p < .05, ηp2 = .07), such that participants who were excluded reported higher self-esteem post-essay (M = 3.49, SD = 1.12) compared to pre-essay (M = 3.21, SD = 1.02), p <.001, though we found no interactions between IC vs. NIC and time point, F(1,63) = .94, p > .05, ηp2 < .001. Therefore, though participants’ overall feelings of acceptance, mood, and self-esteem improved over time, this was not dependent on whether or not they had an imaginary companion. We do not find evidence to support the social buffering hypothesis, and instead argue that the hurt of exclusion becomes mediated over time.
Given the results from Study 1, we only explored the extent to which IC and NIC adults differ on dimensions of need to belong and parasocial attachment. Assuming that IC adults possess large social appetites and seek connections with others, we would expect them to score higher on both measures compared to NIC adults. We conducted an analysis of variance (ANOVA) comparing need to belong and parasocial attachment between IC and NIC groups. There were no differences between groups for need to belong, F(1,63) = 2.19, p > .05, ηp2 = .03 (see Figure 12). In fact, the NIC group (M = 3.57, SD = .62) reported a slightly higher mean than the IC group (M = 3.52, SD = .82). We also found no differences between groups for parasocial attachment, F(1,63) = .03, p > .05, ηp2 = .01 (see Figure 13).
Just as ICs may foster the development of social coping devices, we hypothesized that IC adults would be more socially accommodating and better at managing others. After the essay portion of the study, participants completed a subscale of the Self-Report Emotional Intelligence scale, which measures the extent to which people can regulate others’ emotions. We conducted an analysis of variance (ANOVA) comparing emotional intelligence scores across condition and IC vs. NIC. We found no main effect of condition (F(1,63) = .51, p > .05, ηp2 = .01) nor IC vs. NIC (F(1,63) = .78, p > .05, ηp2 = .01), but we found an interaction between condition and IC vs. NIC, F(1,63) = 3.96, p = .05, ηp2 = .06 (see Figure 14). Specifically, IC adults who were excluded (M = 3.98, SD = .54) reported higher emotional intelligence than NIC adults who were excluded (M = 3.61, SD = .52), p < .05, but there was no difference between IC and NIC adults who were accepted (p > .05). This finding suggests that people who had ICs are more motivated to reconnect with others after experiencing exclusion, therefore reporting greater confidence in their abilities to manage others’ emotions compared to people without ICs.
We predicted that IC adults would score higher on the self-report measure of creativity, which would replicate findings from Study 1. We also expected IC adults to score higher on our modes of transportation task, in that they should list more items as well as more creative items within the time frame. Finally, we expected IC adults to score higher on our measure of openness to experience, given its association with divergent thinking.
An analysis of variance (ANOVA) comparing self-reported creativity between groups revealed significant differences, such that IC adults (M = 5.16, SD = 3.67) received higher scores than NIC adults (M = 3.26, SD = 3.31), F(1,67) = 4.88, p < .05, ηp2 = .07 (see Figure 15). For the modes of transportation task, we compared the number of items between groups as well as the total creativity score after coding. As expected, the number of items was highly correlated with total creativity score, r = .86, p < .001. An analysis of variance comparing number of items listed for IC and NIC groups showed that IC adults (M = 20.00, SD = 4.72) listed more items than NIC adults (M = 17.03, SD = 4.47), F(1,50) = 5.39, p < .05, ηp2 = .10 (see Figure 16). We also found differences for overall creativity score, such that IC adults (M = 33.25, SD = 10.63) received higher scores than NIC adults (M = 26.83, SD = 9.03), F(1,50) = 5.89, p < .05, ηp2 = .11 (see Figure 17).3 We found a marginal effect for openness to experience, such that IC adults (M = 5.44, SD = 1.17) reported slightly higher scores than NIC adults (M = 4.87, SD = 1.27), F(1,63) = 3.52, p = .07, ηp2 = .06 (see Figure 17). Since our openness measure from Study 1 revealed significant results (p < .001), we argue that this marginal trend was influenced by the smaller sample size.
General Discussion and Conclusions
For many children, imaginary companions offer emotional support, opportunities for pretend play, and a space to define and hone interpersonal skills throughout the beginning stages of development. These relationships impact the kinds of social skills and relationships that emerge in adulthood, even after the imaginary companion disappears. Despite the variety of research dedicated to studying the ways in which ICs influence socioemotional profiles during childhood, little information exists with respect to long-term outcomes. In other words, how might ICs contribute to interpersonal relationships, social coping, and creativity past childhood? The aim of the present research was to delve deeper into the differences between adults who had imaginary companions as children and those who did not. We were specifically interested in social orientation, coping styles in the face of exclusion, and creative tendencies.
Mood and Self-esteem
In the second study, we proposed two hypotheses examining the extent to which IC adults have more adaptive coping skills for handling social exclusion. We did not find support for our social buffering hypothesis, which predicted that IC adults would use memories of their imaginary companion to recover more quickly from exclusion on measures of mood and self-esteem. Instead, we found evidence to support our social coping hypothesis. Immediately after the Cyberball manipulation, IC adults showed no difference in self-esteem by condition, while NIC adults who were excluded reported significantly lower self-esteem. Both IC and NIC adults acknowledged that they were excluded, reflected in decreases in positive mood and feelings of acceptance, yet IC adults maintained levels of self-esteem across conditions. These results imply that IC adults are inherently more resistant to the impact of exclusion, as indicated by more stable self-esteem after being socially excluded. We offer the explanation that imaginary companionships provide emotional validation throughout childhood, effectively bolstering senses of self-worth into adulthood.
Some previous literature asserts that imaginary companions develop to compensate for inadequate social networks, implying that children with ICs lack proper social connections or cannot make friendships on their own. More recent research, however, presents an alternative framework that conceives imaginary companions as extensions of an already healthy social network. Essentially, ICs may stem from a heightened desire to interact with others, rather than to soothe feelings of exclusion or loneliness. We therefore posit a social competence hypothesis in the present research, given our findings from two studies. In the first study, we found no differences between IC and NIC adults on dimensions of social anxiety, loneliness, or sensitivity to exclusion. It appears that, as adults, people who had imaginary companions are fully functional and capable of maintaining healthy relationships. Our measures of social orientation (i.e. need to belong, agreeableness, extraversion), while not significant, also hint that IC adults are more inclined to seek out others, aligning with the “toward-others” interpersonal style from earlier research. Thus, we argue that imaginary companions can aid in the development of more mature social skills through extra social “rehearsal,” which transcend childhood into adult social worlds. These early instances of pretend play can encourage children to visualize and label others’ emotions through invented scenarios and conversations. Once they reach adulthood, individuals with formers ICs can harness these qualities and incorporate them into everyday interactions.
Though we found marginal differences for parasocial attachment in the first study, these findings did not replicate a second time. It is likely that IC adults no longer rely on these parasocial bonds in adulthood, which contradicts our assumption that adults may continue to use social surrogates once their imaginary companions fade away. Conversely, it seems that IC adults do not require these bonds since their social needs are met in other ways, through relationships in the real world. This could also be an indication of better coping skills, since parasocial bonds are linked to anxious-ambivalent attachment styles. For future research, it might be useful to look more closely at the relationship between parasocial attachment and imaginary companions. Given that many children turn to ICs for emotional regulation, adults who had ICs might be more likely to develop parasocial bonds with characters that embody the same characteristics as their imaginary companion. Similarly, adults who had ICs might pursue parasocial interactions only under specific circumstances, such as when their social networks feel inaccessible or unavailable.
Research in younger populations suggests that pretend play with imaginary characters is highly correlated with theory of mind, even when controlling for age and verbal intelligence (Taylor & Carlson, 1997). Children with ICs are also said to be more sociable, less shy, and more cooperative with adults compared to children without imaginary companions. Given that theory of mind is closely associated with emotional intelligence, we compared IC and NIC adults’ scores on a measure of “other-management,” which examines the extent to which people can conceptualize and regulate others’ emotions. We expected IC adults to score higher in general, yet we found an unanticipated interaction between condition and whether or not participants had an imaginary companion. In the excluded condition, IC adults reported higher scores than those in the accepted condition; there were no differences among NIC adults by condition. We interpret this as more evidence for our social coping hypothesis, since we do not see a similar effect for people in the acceptance condition. Rather than take personal offense, IC adults seem to be more confident in their abilities to understand others’ emotions after exclusion, conveyed through an increase in emotional intelligence scores.
Creativity and Openness
Studies 1 and 2 provide support for our creative hypothesis, which predicted that IC adults would score higher on two measures of creativity. Not only were IC adults more confident in their creative abilities, but results from an objective measure of creativity also revealed differences between groups, such that IC adults scored higher overall. Results from the first study likewise indicate the IC adults spend more time engaging in imaginative activities during their free time and are more open to experiences. Though there were no differences for openness to experience in Study 2, the large sample size in Study 1 better substantiates the claim that IC adults are possibly more open. Our findings are consistent with previous research that reports a relationship between having an imaginary companion and imaginative or creative behavior. Nonetheless, we cannot assert a causal relationship between ICs and creativity, since it remains unclear whether ICs develop in children with already creative tendencies, or if the development and sustained relationship with an IC cultivates divergent thinking throughout childhood. Further exploration is needed to tease the two phenomena apart.
Conclusions and Future Directions
Collectively, the current research presents a social competence theory for adults who had imaginary companions as children. We find further evidence to suggest that, not only are IC adults socially stable and proficient, but they also appear to cope better with exclusion. This social strategizing could be a product of a more developed imagination. Rather than having worse social skills, children who create ICs may have lacked opportunities for social exploration, prompting them to create a companion for themselves. Moreover, adults who had imaginary companions are likely more creative, perhaps a product of their fantastical relationship during childhood. These social and creative differences are theoretically intertwined. In fact, creative imaginations in conjunction with a healthy social appetite may lend themselves to imaginary companions. Thus, the idea that ICs are somehow a symptom of social deficiency should be put to rest. Developing an imaginary companion, in other words, is an adaptive response to situations in which social outlets are not readily accessible for markedly creative children.
Going forward, it is important to understand the interplay between social relationships and creativity, and how imaginary companions determine or reflect social interactions. Imaginary companions occupy unique and influential roles in children’s lives, and the extent to which this relationship contributes to adult personality profiles requires more attention. For instance, IC adults may approach and/or manage conflict differently than NIC adults, according to the finding that IC adults may be especially accommodating. Results from Study 2, which showed that IC adults’ self-esteem was unchanged after exclusion, should also be explored further and applied to other situations where one’s sense of self is called into question. These insights could broaden our knowledge regarding adult relationships, social aspirations beyond childhood, and individual differences like creativity and emotional intelligence.
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