When We’re Lonely, Inanimate Faces Come Alive

Our minds are less particular about the source of comfort when we are craving contact with others

Photo: Anna Peisl/Corbis

When we're desperate for love or attention, we unconsciously lower our standards for what we'll try to connect with, according to new research. Loneliness, it seems, can cause the line between animate and inanimate to blur.

Katherine Powers, a psychologist at Dartmouth College and lead author of the new study, asked undergraduates to view images of faces on a computer. As Medical Express describes, most of the images were "morphs"—they were rendered by blending real and digitally created faces (such as the image of a doll's face) together. They ranged in realism from 100 percent human to 100 percent inanimate. 

After asking the students to rate which faces they found to be most realistic, the team then surreptitiously quizzed them about how they were feeling that day, by having them rank how much they agreed with phrases such as "I want other people to accept me," Medical Express writes. Those who felt desperate for social acceptance and attention, they found, had lower standards for which images qualified as animate.  

In a second experiment, students took a personality test and then were randomly told their future, supposedly based on those results. The researchers told some hapless participants that they would lead a forlorn life marked by loneliness and isolation, while others were assured that they would find long-lasting friends and the love of their life, Medical Express reports. Then, the students viewed the same set of animate-to-inanimate faces. Again, those who thought they were cursed to die alone were less discerning about which faces counted as human. (Presumably, they were told at the end of the study that they were not, in fact, doomed to a life of loneliness.)

As Powers explained in a release published on Medical Express, the increased sensitivity to what is and is not alive "suggests that people are casting a wide net when looking for people they can possibly relate to—which may ultimately help them maximize opportunities to renew social connections."

These findings harken back to previous studies conducted on young children who develop intense attachment to inanimate objects, such as dolls, toys or even blankets. According to The Guardian, up to 70 percent of children exhibit such behaviors at some time or another, although "the phenomenon tends to be confined to the western world, where children usually sleep apart from their parents at an early age." Those children, researchers found, believe that their beloved object essentially possesses a life force or an essence—even if they contradictorily understand that it is in fact not alive. 

Children, however, aren't the only ones who sometimes develop intense attachments to inanimate objects whose owners nonetheless treat them as though they were living. As one new owner of a RealDoll—the life size, ultra-realistic (usually female) dolls—recently noted on that company's website

Since receiving my doll I feel like the Frank Lloyd Wright client who so loved their house that they did not want to leave it.

Enough cannot be said about the extent of realism to my doll. Photos do not convey the impact of see[ing] this doll with your own eyes sitting on your own furniture. I enjoy having a glass of wine while admiring her sitting nude on a chair.