Part III: The science behind imaginary friends

Imaginary friends might be dismissed as nostalgic relics of youth, but as we see in this third episode of the Science Friday series “the real guide to imaginary companions,” developmental psychologists use imaginary friends to study how children form relationships and exercise self-control as they grow.


Imaginary friends might be dismissed as nostalgic relics of youth.

But as we see in this third episode of the 'Science Friday' series 'The Real Guide to Imaginary Companions,' developmental psychologists use imaginary friends to study how children form relationships and exercise self-control as they grow.

They come in all shapes, sizes.


He's big?

He's this big.

Children surprise us all the time with what they come up with.

A shark?

This idea that something can be real and fantasy all at the same time, that's an amazing capacity.

Can you sit down?

To onlookers, imaginary companions often seem bizarre.

Who is Agridotus?

He lives in the floor with the ants.

[ Laughing ]

He lives in the floor with the ants.

Does he have a face?



What does his face look like?

The floor.


His face looks like the floor.


Can I try to talk to Agridotus?


Oh. Why not?

Because he's... He can't talk to you.

Does he play with the ants?


He plays with the ants?

And then they don't like him.

And they push him away.

But for developmental psychologists like Dr. Tracy Gleason, these creations offer valuable glimpses inside the minds of children.

When a child creates a relationship that is imaginary, what they put into that relationship is a lot of what they know about relationships.

It's all one person.

There's only one person's ideas about relationships operating in that scenario.

One little person whose real-world interactions with their peers can be messy.

Here is a person who doesn't know any more about the world than you do.

You have to try and formulate it yourself and figure out what that is about.

It's a lot of the blind leading the blind.

As a result of this lack of experience...

Children tend to create imaginary relationships that are not infinitely varied.

They actually look quite a bit like real relationships.

So either they're hierarchical, where usually the child is the parent, and the imaginary companion, they need a lot of nurturing and teaching and helping, or the relationship is much more like a friendship.

The child and the imaginary companion are kind of egalitarian.

To me, the question then becomes, why?

Why does one child create a hierarchical relationship and another child create an egalitarian relationship?

To answer this question, Dr. Gleason evaluated and categorized children's real and imaginary social lives.

Turns out you talk to a 3- or 4-year-old, and you say, 'Is your relationship hierarchical or egalitarian?'

you know, you don't really get good data.

So I might ask a question like 'Do you take care of your imaginary companion?

Or does your imaginary companion take care of you?

Um, who's the boss?'

Do you need to teach her a lot of things?


She doesn't know a lot of things.


Dozens of interviews later, she was able to see some patterns emerging.

Children with egalitarian relationships with their imaginary companions seem to be just a little bit ahead of their peers in using very pro-social, competent ways of coping with hypothetical social dilemmas, more so than children who had hierarchical relationships.

But this doesn't necessarily mean that imaginary companions make us better at socializing.

Theoretically, that's possible.

Theoretically, you create an imaginary companion -- that gives you practice.

You could practice positive interactions.

You could practice conflict resolution.

That could be very handy.

On the other hand, you could be really good at conflict resolution and create an imaginary companion as a place to use that skill that you already have.

Whether the imaginary companion is hierarchical or egalitarian, a child has to make a big step.

One of the beauties of having an imaginary companion is that it does give you this forum in which you practice perspective taking.

It affords the chance to have your mind and somebody else's mind in mind all at the same time.

And this ability to distance oneself by pretending can be particularly useful when encountering problems.

My own daughter had imaginary companions.

And she had the Wazet in the closet.

For her, it was a way to deal with and overcome her fear of, um, what -- what lies behind the closet door.

[ Growls ]

And the Wazet keeps all the bad guys away.

[ Chuckling ]

Pretending can also help with self-control.

To just wait for a snack, that alone can be kind of excruciating.

Or to control the urge to grab a toy.

That requires emotional self-control.

Many researchers, like Dr. Stephanie Carlson at the University of Minnesota, call this ability executive function.

And they've set up experiments to test a child's ability to harness it.

Which one of these characters do you want to pretend to be while you're working on this?

What we're doing is looking at how pretending to be someone else, like Batman, will potentially help with executive function skills, such as managing a frustrating situation.

A tempting toy is placed in a clear, locked box.

The child is given several keys and instructions to try opening the box on their own.

Now, none of these keys actually work.

Some of the kids are told --

To think about their own thoughts and feelings while they're working away with these keys.

Other children are instructed to think about themselves from a more distanced perspective and to pretend to be somebody else.

So while you're working on this, if you get frustrated, just ask yourself, 'How is Batman feeling?'

Being immersed in the self is actually counterproductive.

Then you start to ruminate and think even more about how frustrated you're getting.

When you distance from the self, you get a little bit more perspective on the situation.

Did you feel frustrated at all while you were working on that?



Pretending seems to help kids think through problems and solve problems as if they were a year older.

And a year improvement can make a big difference in the life of a child.

Of course, as adults, we often forget the role pretending or imaginary companions had on our development.

Instead, we remember bizarre details.

They looked like real mice.

But they had clothes on.

He could fly.

He could skate really fast.

She did not display magical powers.

But she did love mud pies.

He did a lot of bad stuff.

They didn't have, like, noses or mouths or eyes or anything.

Only a witch.

Only a witch is living at the bottom of a juice glass.

He was, you know, he was on the moon.

Like, of course you can't see him.

He's on the moon.

But we sure do miss them.

The imaginary things that I made up as a kid are still the things that I do now for a living.

He was just a good companion.

Like, he just made sure I was okay.

I wish they'd hung around longer.

Most imaginary companions disappear before puberty.

But the ability to imagine relationships never seems to go away.

Most people talk to others in their heads a lot of the time.

You might imagine saying something difficult to somebody.

And if their reaction isn't what you're really going for, you might imagine saying it a different way.

Quite common.