Understanding the psychology of imaginary friends

Over the last two decades, researchers have gathered diverse and nuanced profiles of children who create imaginary friends. In this first episode of Science Friday’s “The Real Guide to Imaginary Companions,” developmental psychologists Margery Taylor and Tracy Gleason describe how scientists study this playful phenomenon.


Over the last two decades, researchers have gathered diverse and nuanced profiles of children who create imaginary friends.

In this first episode of 'Science Fridays: The Real Guide to Imaginary Companions,' developmental psychologists Marjorie Taylor and Tracy Gleason describe how scientists study this playful phenomenon.

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.

We've got an image in our heads of a child sitting alone, talking to some unseen entity...

The child was shy and maybe a little out of touch with reality.

Definitely stuck in their own world.

Children who were lonely, um, kind of at best, or had some sort of psychopathology at worst.

Something has gone wrong.

A lot of times when imaginary friends show up in a movie, it's time to take the child to the psychiatrist.

These cultural representations of children with imaginary companions put a fantasy in our heads.

And for a long time, professional psychiatric research backed it up.

A lot of the research came from clinical studies of children who were having problems, and it was discovered that, yes, they did have imaginary friends.

So having an imaginary friend became associated with having some kind of difficulty.

In fact, when developmental psychologist Dr. Marjorie Taylor first began her work in the field in the 1990s, there wasn't a lot of research on this phenomenon.

You know, when I first started out, I wanted to find out who's the typical kid who has one, and what's the typical imaginary friend like?

And it was hard to pin it down.

For example, how do you even define what an imaginary companion is?

Deciding if we're gonna count something as being an imaginary friend or not is extremely messy.

Some people only want to talk about the invisible variety.

But that means if you have a little boy like Calvin from 'Calvin and Hobbes,' that child would be classified as someone who did not have an imaginary friend, and we know that that's not true.

Objects can be imbued with all kinds of personality and character, and children can listen to what those objects have to say.

I heard once about a child who had a very close relationship with one of those little 4 or 6-ounce cans of tomato paste.

Timmy, where'd you go?

I don't have eyes in the back of my can.

Oh, there you are back.

I missed you.

When it's so easy to carry around that way, why not?

You know, they were good pals.

And then there's the problem of unreliable interview subjects.

Talking to a child about an imaginary companion, you have no idea what's gonna come out.

I see.

They'll tell you something, and you think, 'What are they talking about?'

Blue, gray?



No, blue, gray, yellow, black.

Blue, gray, yellow, and black.


Typically, developmental psychologists like Dr. Tracy Gleason get their data from fidgety or overly excited interviewees.


You have said, 'Do you have an imaginary companion?'

And they think, 'What a great idea!'

So they say, 'Yes! Yes, I do!'

And they'll report on some imaginary companion that they're making up right on the spot.

Do you have any friends like that?





So researchers conduct multiple interviews with a child and their parents just to be sure the information is accurate.

In the process, Dr. Gleason, Dr. Taylor, and other researchers have discovered that the phenomenon occurs more frequently than anybody could've imagined.

He's actually this height.

If you follow children up to the age of 7, it's probably in the neighborhood of 60%, 65%. If you only want to include the invisible types, it's more like 38%.

Similar results have been observed across a diversity of ethnic groups.

In fact, when a behavior is so common, it's hard to pin down who is the stereotypical child who has one.

There's really not much difference between children who do have imaginary friends and children who don't.

But they do have some shared attributes.

Girls are somewhat more likely to have imaginary friends than boys.

Children who create imaginary companions really like pretend play.

They like fantasy.

And they also are very sociable.

They like people.

They are less shy, so it's exactly the opposite of the stereotype.

But these are social kids.

Why do they need to create imaginary relationships?

I think there are a lot of different reasons, but the main one is just because the child has some free time, and so they just invent a friend to talk to.

Do you have any imaginary friends?

You do? How many?

What are their names?

Alice and Jewel.

They're twins.

Do they look like you?

Can I see them?


Oh. Oh! Okay.

They were hiding back there the whole time?


What -- What sort of stuff they like to do with you?

What games do you guys play?

Oh. And are they good at hiding?

I like to think the stereotypical reason you create an imaginary companion is because it's fun.

And why wouldn't you?

Because, you know, then you have this person that you can interact with anytime, anywhere.

If you have created this character and -- and you are thinking things over, you're mulling something over that's going on in your life, you can talk to your imaginary friend and imagine what the character would say in response.

Oh, what did Mommy and Daddy say to hurt their feelings?

So we're not supposed to -- to talk about how big they are 'cause that hurts their feelings?


As for classifying the imaginary characters themselves...

They can be just about anything.

Dipper was a flying dolphin who lived on a faraway star.

I like Bainter, the little boy who lived in the light.

You can't see him because he's white.

So many different types.

It just blows my mind at times.

With such diversity, how is a researcher supposed to make sense of it all?

I was frustrated by trying to do that, and I realized, you know, the finding is the diversity.

That's the finding.

That has resulted in really a deep respect for the developing imagination of children in general.

Many of these children form deep attachments to their companions.

They love them.

I mean, that love is real.

And I was curious, do they think that they actually exist somewhere?

They certainly behave like they're real.

They're sitting there talking to you.

You're listening carefully.

You're writing down what they say.

And at some point, they want to clarify, 'You know it's just a little pretend girl.

I just made her up.

You know it's not real.'

So what exactly are they thinking?

On the next episode of 'The Real Guide to Imaginary Companions.'

Joining me now is 'Science Friday' video producer Luke Groskin.

So, why is it useful to study children and their imaginary companions?

Well, you're looking at the beginning of pretend play, which is a -- a skill that you're gonna use throughout the rest of your life.

You're also getting a window into the mind of a child that you couldn't necessarily get.

So when you do an interview with a kid, um, they're not very good interviewees.

They tend to be unfocused, and they tend to lie, or they tend to play around with you.

And by having an imaginary companion, you can -- That's just one person.


You know, they've created another person.

So you can get a glimpse of how they view a relationship.

You can get a glimpse of how they view fantasy and reality.

And, you know, these are young kids.

You're getting a glimpse into the child, the development of a human being.


And so, by looking at imaginary companions, you -- you just get this one person, and they're just giving -- They're revealing all this information that you couldn't normally get.


And you see this, uh, this -- this -- what's -- what are their fears, what are their challenges, and how they kind of bottle that up into this other person.


You know, the children that create imaginary companions, they create them for a wide variety of reasons.

Sometimes, they're just bored.

Sometimes, they have a new sibling, and they want to work out what it's -- what it's like to be a family.

I met one little girl whose imaginary companion was her fiancé, and she created him right after she went to a wedding.

So, clearly, she's working out what does it mean to have a fiancé? What does it mean to be in a romantic relationship?

Obviously, through the prism of a 5-year-old...


...it's very innocent and very silly and goofy, but she's working it out, and you can actually see it in action.

So when you were in this, these rooms or watching these interviews, did you start picturing what they were describing?

Like, was -- was it yellow, is it black, is it tall, is it short, is it --

Oh, absolutely. Absolutely.

You -- You get into their little bubble fantasy world.

It's -- It's -- It's actually a real delight in terms of all the different sciences that I've -- I've been able to cover to actually talk to little kids and get into their fantasy.

It's not like when somebody just describes their dream, and you're like, 'Oh, that's something that's never occurred.'

For a child, it's real to them, this little fantasy world.

They know it's not real, but they're children, and so they bring this life and energy to it that you -- you can't get.


It's just so amazing.

Well, and plus -- I mean, I'm assuming that that informs how you built the graphics for the story.

Yes, of course.

And, you know, and -- and, also, it's kind of interesting, when we were working with the animator, you know, you watch this 30-minute interview.

And over the course of the 30-minute interview, the size of the imaginary companion might change, the color of their skin might change, their age might change.

Um, you go back, and you ask the same kid again, you know, what are the dimensions and the physicality of this -- this imaginary companion, and they tend to return to some sort of archetype.

And that's what we used for our animations.

This entire process is a really creative exercise.

Oh, yeah. You're -- You're looking at kind of the first, um, element of a child's ability to pretend.

You know, creating an imaginary companion is -- is a form of pretense.

And that sort of element of pretense, it takes a lot for a child to do that.

I met one little girl who actually, what she would do with her pretend imaginary companion was to pretend.

So now she has -- Now she has -- She's pretending.

She has the mind of another person in her head.

And that other person has a mind of another person in their head.

And she has her own mind, and she's pretending to be somebody else all at the same time.



So there's some really complex stuff going on here.

And we, as adults, we do this all the time.

You're in the shower, you're thinking about what you're gonna say to your boss or your friends.

Right, right.

And you're -- you're working it all out.

So, how is this series different -- I mean, this is a few different parts to this -- than some of the videos that you've worked on?

So, for 'Imaginary Companions,' um, we really wanted to -- to look at -- We really wanted to put people in -- in -- in the world of the -- the subjects as well.

We didn't want to just cover what the researchers were saying.

So we wanted to really see what it was like to have an imaginary companion and use those as kind of demonstrations of, you know, what it -- of what the science is showing us, as a leaping-off point to get into the science.

Normally, when you're doing these sorts of things, you -- you want to be a little bit more objective.

You don't want to exactly put yourselves in the head of the subjects that you're talking about.

But for this, we thought, you know, they're so wonderful and so -- so fanciful.


Better to get into their -- into their -- into their mindscape.

And that's what the researchers have to do as well.

Yeah. Luke Groskin from 'Science Friday.'

Thanks for joining us.

Thank you.

A unique cafe has opened on the University of Central Florida campus.

The adult harness cafe is equipped with a special harness system that allows victims of traumatic brain injury or stroke to work behind the counter.

Here's the story.

Thank you, sir.

We built the cafe around the harness.

It's a 10'x10' space, and there's a U-ring at the top of the device, and it's frictionless.

That is what allows that individual to move anywhere within that 10'x10' space.

We're starting out with traumatic brain injury, but we certainly see that this technology has applications for individuals that are survivors of stroke, survivors of spinal cord injuries.

The accident happened over 10 years ago, and she was in a coma for 4 1/2 months.

She's always been, uh, a vivacious person, very active, and she likes to talk to people.

So this gives her an opportunity to do it on a regular basis.

It gives me purpose.

I can accomplish something.

In our situation, our TBI survivors are taking the orders, and then they're going across to the other side of the cafe to retrieve those orders.

They're working on things like memory.

I have to walk and hear them, and then I have to walk and try to remember and get what they -- they want.

For Diana, she's working on some fine motor and dexterity.

So for her to be able to -- to grab ahold of multiple items and bring them back.

It is good because she can grab things and hold them without having to fall down.

Normally, she cannot carry things from one place to another.

Really, what this does is it offers them an environment to showcase their potential, to demonstrate their capacity.

If there wasn't this opportunity, they're sitting at home because there's not opportunities for them to be engaged in the real world doing meaningful activities and contributing.

And that's -- that's what we know that they're capable of.

They need to implement harnesses all over so that we, as disabled people, we aren't just limited to therapy.

We're just excited to have the opportunity to advocate for individuals with disabilities.

So this is just us dipping our toe in the water, and we think that there will be many other individuals in our community who can benefit from the technology.

Harnesses need to be everywhere so we can walk around like regular people 'cause we are regular people.

And that wraps it up for this time.

For more on science, technology, and innovation, visit our website, check us out on Facebook and Instagram, and join the conversation on Twitter.

You can also subscribe to our YouTube channel.

Until next time, I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Thanks for watching.

Funding for this program is made possible by... ♪♪