psychology of loneliness

Psychology of Loneliness and Perceiving Life in Inanimate Objects

We crave social connection. As human beings, we rely on social bonds to survive. In fact, a major predictor of health and mortality is social connection. The more social relationships a person has, the better his or her health outcomes. Of course, this raises the question: “what is the psychology of loneliness?”

psychology of lonelinessSome have defined loneliness as “perceived social isolation.” People feel “lonely” when their actual social relations fall short of how much social connection they want. This means that people can still feel lonely even when they do have social bonds and appear to everyone else as though nothing’s wrong. It can also mean that people who have very few relationships do not necessarily feel lonely.

Although loneliness is related to things like depression and physical health, interesting new research shows that it also changes how people see the world. Remember how Tom Hanks’ character is Castaway came to see an inanimate volleyball as a friend? Well, it might not just be an interesting  movie plot.

Seeing Humanity in Inanimate Objects

It’s not uncommon for us to see “life” in inanimate objects. When my smart phone is on the fritz, it seems to have a mind of its own, and when my car won’t start, it feels like my engine is upset with me. This is called “anthropomorphizing.” It happens any time we give human characteristics to non-humans.[1]  In this article, I talk mostly about anthropomorphizing objects, but people also anthropomorphize animals, too. If you feel like your pets have minds, emotions, intentions, and grand plans for their lives, that’s technically a case of anthropomorphism, too.

There are a few reasons why people perceive human qualities in non-humans. Psychologists Nicholas Epley, Adam Waytz, and John Cacioppo proposed that people perceive life in inanimate objects when they know what human qualities might apply, when they want to understand the object’s behavior, and when they crave social contact.

That last one matters for loneliness. If this anthropomorphism theory is right, it would mean that lonely people are more likely to perceive human qualities in inanimate objects.

Psychology of Loneliness and Anthropomorphizing

One study tested this idea by showing people descriptions of four gadgets:

  • “Clocky” – an alarm clock that rolls around so that you have to chase it down to turn it off in the morning.
  • “CleverCharger” – a battery charger with the ability to prevent overcharging.
  • “Pure Air” – an air purifier designed especially for people with allergies or respiratory problems.
  • “Pillow Mate” – a special pillow that can be programmed to give you a hug.

After reading about each gadget, people rated it using a handful of human-like traits (e.g., how much it “had a mind of its own” or “experienced emotions”) and a handful of non-human characteristics (e.g., how strong or well-designed it was).

The study also measured each participant’s loneliness. They found that lonelier people were more likely to see human qualities in the gadgetsOn the other hand, less lonely people were less prone to anthropomorphizing.

Although this study only tested 20 participants, a recently published study found exactly the same results with a new group of 178 people.

Feeling Less Lonely Reduces Anthropomorphism

anthropomorphismThe newly published study that replicated the original one also added a new wrinkle to the story. These researchers wanted to know: if we soothe people’s craving for social connection, will they stop seeing humanity in inanimate objects?

Before reading about the techno gadgets, half of their participants thought about an important and meaningful relationship that they have. They thought about how they could depend on that person and not worry about being abandoned by him or her. They thought about what that person looks like and the traits that person has.

The other half of participants went through a similar process, but they only thought about someone who was no more than an acquaintance.

Then they read about and rated the same gadgets as before.

In the end, thinking about a close, important relationship made people see less human qualities in the inanimate gadgets, compared to the other condition. In other words, when people’s needs for social connection were met–at least temporarily–they were no longer motivated to see inanimate gadgets as having minds of their own.

Yearning for Connection

If only Tom Hanks had a real human buddy on that island, a volleyball may not have become the co-star of a major motion picture.

These studies add to our understanding of loneliness. It’s not just a feeling of depression–it’s the denial of a human need that we want to get back. Feeling lonely is a bit like feeling hungry. It’s a need you’re focused on satisfying. And in the Looney Tunes universe, anyway, it can make your friend look an awful lot like a roast turkey pulled straight from the oven.[2]  (cf. Garfield) Or in this case, it can make a pillow seem like it has feelings.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1.  In this article, I talk mostly about anthropomorphizing objects, but people also anthropomorphize animals, too. If you feel like your pets have minds, emotions, intentions, and grand plans for their lives, that’s technically a case of anthropomorphism, too.
2.  (cf. Garfield)

Leave a Comment