Unusual Ways the Lonely Cope

In the 2000 film "Cast Away," Tom Hanks plays an obsessive, clock-watching businessman, Chuck Noland, who by a twist of fate finds himself stranded on an isolated Pacific island. Noland copes with his four years of social disconnection and loneliness in part by befriending a volleyball, which he names Wilson. He jokes with Wilson and confides in Wilson and mistreats Wilson, and at one point he even kicks his companion out of their cave like an angry spouse. When he finally and irretrievably loses his volleyball to the ocean currents, he cries, "I'm sorry, Wilson!"

We've all had fantasies about living alone on a tropical island, far from the din and pressure of modern life. But we should watch what we wish for, because in fact most of us would fare poorly in such isolated conditions. This has been shown time and again: people who live lonely and disconnected lives, even smack in the middle of a modern metropolis, are more depressed, more suicidal and have more physical illnesses than the rest of us. Such longing is especially poignant at holiday time. The lonely are in effect emotional castaways.

And how do emotional castaways cope? What cognitive tools do we have to salve the pain of loneliness? Psychologists are very interested in this question, and one emerging theory is that we do precisely what Chuck Noland knew intuitively to do. We "invent" people to keep us company, humanizing anything we can humanize—pets, supernatural beings, possibly even something as unlikely as a volleyball.

A team of psychologists recently decided to explore the "volleyball hypothesis" in the laboratory. Nicholas Epley, Adam Waytz and John Cacioppo of the University of Chicago and Scott Akalis of Harvard ran three different studies on the link between loneliness and anthropomorphism—the tendency to give human traits to nonhuman things like terriers and alarm clocks. Their findings shed some new light not only on human coping but on the unfortunate human tendency to dehumanize strangers.

The psychologists began by sorting out people who consider themselves chronically lonely from those who feel they are well connected with friends and family. In the first study, they introduced both the lonely and the connected to a few technological gadgets: For example, "Clocky" is a wheeled alarm clock that you must chase around the room in order to stop its ringing. "Pillow mate" is a torso-shaped pillow that can be programmed to give hugs.

Participants then rated each gadget on such traits as: "has a mind of its own" and "exercises free will" and "experiences emotions." They also rated each on nonhuman traits like efficiency and attractiveness.

The results were interesting but open to interpretation. Lonely people were much more likely than connected people to believe that pillows have emotions and clocks have intentions and schemes. But it could well be that people with pet clocks end up alone, rather than the other way around. So the scientists decided to look at loneliness a different way, and at the same time to broaden the study to include beliefs in the supernatural.

In the next study, the psychologists actually induced feelings of loneliness and disconnection in the lab. They tricked the college-age subjects into thinking they were taking a personality test, and then further deceived them into thinking a computer could make accurate life predictions for them based on their personality type. So some were basically made to believe that they would end up living lives of social isolation, while others learned that they would have lives full of rich social connection. Then the psychologists interviewed the participants to gauge their beliefs in God, the Devil, angels, ghosts, miracles and so forth.

The findings were clear. Those facing a life of loneliness were more apt to believe in supernatural agents of all kinds. As the authors write in the journal Psychological Science, loneliness doesn't turn atheists into fundamentalists, but it does appear to nudge people toward believing in various incarnations, some darker than others. Even bad company is company, it appears, and better than being alone.

Not surprisingly, the psychologists found the same pattern with pets. That is, people who were made to feel lonely were more likely to humanize their dogs and cats and hamsters than were people who feel well loved.

Is this a good thing or a bad thing? It depends on how you look at it. Clearly, humanizing Old Shep or an old baseball glove is a bit bizarre, yet it does appear to truly help some extremely isolated souls cope with their condition. On the other hand, the psychologists say, it's quite possible that some people are actually substituting such relationships for true human connection, perhaps because people are too threatening.

There is a more unsettling possibility, as well. If the human mind is wired to make lonely people hunger for connection, as these studies show, then the inverse is probably also true. That is, people who are not lonely, who are secure in their circle of friends and family, may be more likely to dehumanize strangers; they have no motivation to make further connections. So perhaps it's not entirely fanciful for an emotional castaway to befriend a volleyball, but for most of us the greater risk may be treating real flesh-and-blood humans as playthings.

Wray Herbert writes the "We're Only Human . . ." blog at www.psychologicalscience.org/onlyhuman.

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