The Truth About Imaginary Friends

Developmental psychologist Marjorie Taylor has turned our understanding of imaginary companions upside down.

Developmental psychologist Marjorie Taylor still remembers when she was introduced to a female veterinarian named Elfi Welfi back in the late 1990s. Elfi was married to Sammy Whammy, and together they owned a few cats and dogs. Elfi lived in a completely tie-dyed world—hair, skin, furniture, bed sheets, everything. And she was about as tall as a pinky finger.

Elfi Welfi was the product of a 4-year-old girl’s imagination.

The child had come to see Taylor at her Imagination Lab at the University of Oregon, where she explores the relationship between imaginary companions and children’s social and cognitive development into adulthood. Her work has changed negative views of imaginary friends and has transformed how researchers approach studies on imagination.

[What can imaginary friends tell us about our kids?]

Elfi Welfi is one of the most memorable pretend friends whom Taylor has come across in her research. “It was pretty elaborate and structured,” she recalls. “Imaginary companions and the worlds they live in can get really detailed.”

Marjorie Taylor. Photo by Luke Groskin
Marjorie Taylor. Photo by Luke Groskin

According to Taylor and her colleagues in the field of imagination research, an imaginary companion is a friend whom a child has created, talks about, or interacts with on a regular basis. Over the course of nearly 30 years, Taylor has heard of imaginary friends who can fly, live on the moon, become invisible, and breathe fire, and who can take the form of aliens, reptiles, and even real objects like stuffed animals.

“Every time you ask a child if they have an imaginary friend and they say yes, you have to prepare yourself not to laugh or give leading questions, because you don’t know what’s going to come next,” Taylor says. “I’m constantly entertained by what children come up with.”

Her daughter, Amber, first piqued Taylor’s curiosity in the idea of imaginary companions. When Amber was 3 years old, she started talking about a boy named Michael Rose. Taylor had assumed he was a kid at Amber’s daycare, but none of Amber’s teachers had heard of a Michael Rose. When her daughter later mentioned that he had a barn full of giraffes, Taylor put the pieces together: Michael Rose was a product of Amber’s imagination.

Taylor started professionally studying imaginary companions in the late 1980s, after attending a lecture by Harvard University psychologist Paul Harris. He discussed a study in which he had presented an empty box to children and asked them to imagine that there was a monster inside. Even though they had seen that the box was empty, some of the kids were still afraid to go near it. Harris’s study got Taylor wondering if kids with imaginary friends believed that their invisible pals were real.

“I’m constantly entertained by
what children come up with.”

In 1999, Taylor published a seminal book, Imaginary Companions and the Children Who Create Them. The work compiles everything scientists had learned about childhood imagination up to that point (and features the story of Amber and Michael Rose). It also details Taylor’s methodology in assessing imagination, as well as her meticulous interview process with children and their parents. (Children might make up a pretend friend on the spot—which doesn’t count as a true imaginary companion—or talk about their imaginary friends in detail for hours, so Taylor corroborates their stories with parents.)

“I think of [her book] as the imaginary companion bible,” says Tracy Gleason of Wellesley College in Massachusetts, who studies what role imaginary friends play in psychological and social development, and who met Taylor when she was finishing her book. Taylor has played an important part in countering stereotypes that are often attributed to children with imaginary friends, Gleason says.

[How well do psychology studies actually hold up?]

Imaginary companions are much more common than people might think. Up to two-thirds of children have them, typically between the ages of 3 and 8 (although there are accounts of teenagers who retain them from childhood or who first develop them as teens).

Historically, many researchers and parents thought that imaginary companions were harmful or evil, and were a sign of a social deficit, demonic possession, or mental illness. For instance, at the University of Alabama’s Knowledge in Development (KID) Lab, lead psychologist Ansley Gilpin recently heard of a case where a parent thought her daughter might have schizophrenia. It turned out that the child just had an imaginary friend.

“Certainly, it scares many parents today when they have children who are talking to people who are not there,” Gilpin says. Kids who notice that concern might be afraid to admit that they have an imaginary friend, she says.

But some imaginary friends are hard to keep a secret from parents, because they manifest as mean, aggressive, and bossy. Children sometimes act subordinate to their creations, and their imaginary friends can cause kids to say and do things that would get them into trouble. The girl who created tie-dyed Elfi Welfi, for example, described her as being “kind of like a terrorist,” Taylor recalls.

“These relationships with imaginary friends really seem to mimic relationships with other kids in terms of their emotionality and autonomy,” explains Gilpin. Just like in real-life healthy peer relationships, a mixture of positive and negative emotions characterizes imaginary companionships, she says.

[How to make social interaction more like a game.]

Perhaps surprisingly, the work of Taylor and others has shown that, despite the complexity of imaginary friendships and their similarities to real-world relationships, kids recognize that their imaginary friends are make-believe. “Many children at some point [during research interviews] want to make sure you’re not confused,” says Taylor. “They’ll say, ‘You know it’s just a pretend little girl?’”

Imaginary companions are often thought to be an indication of superior intelligence, but the evidence for such an association isn’t compelling, Taylor notes in her book. “It is not true that all intelligent children create imaginary companions nor that only highly intelligent children create them,” she writes, adding that “the absence of an imaginary friend says nothing about the child’s intellectual abilities.”

Small, statistically significant differences between kids with and without imaginary companions do arise, however, and they tend to be positive, says Taylor. For example, children with these pretend pals tend to have a slightly larger vocabulary, are less shy, and are good at understanding the perspective of others.

“Imagination is not just a frivolous
thing you outgrow.”

Over the course of her research, Taylor has noticed that children who had imaginary friends as preschoolers sometimes move on to developing an entire imaginary world, or paracosm. These worlds are typically elaborate, entailing their own geography, transportation systems, governments, and holidays. In a study published last June in the Creativity Research Journal, Taylor interviewed four children about their paracosms and found that their worlds provided a creative outlet, as well as a platform for playing with friends and exploring the real world around them.

Recently, Taylor’s team completed an analysis (not yet published) revealing that 17 percent of approximately 200 children studied had created paracosms. It’s still unclear how often children with imaginary companions move on to these complex worlds or how the two phenomena are connected psychologically, but Taylor hopes that future investigations will reveal more insights.

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Taylor and one of her graduate students, Naomi Aguiar, have also recently probed whether virtual characters can provide the same kind of companionship as imaginary friends, which is “important to understand, because children increasingly are dealing with characters on screens or virtual reality,” she says.

In the April 2015 issue of Cognitive Development, the pair published a study comparing children’s social interactions with a virtual dog and with a stuffed dog. They found that the kids regarded the virtual pup as entertaining, but felt protection and friendship from the plush one (children sometimes ascribe inanimate objects imaginary friend status, although Taylor says not all researchers agree that these items are true imaginary companions). The results hint at the idea that youngsters form deeper relationships with tangible objects than they do with technology, but more research is necessary to draw a more definitive conclusion.

“Often, it’s the parents who are the keepers of the memory.”

Despite how focused children might be on their imaginary friends, as they get older, many tend to forget that they even had one. It can happen within two years of outgrowing the companion. “[These friends] seem so special at the time, but we find that when you interview children later on, they’ve moved on,” Taylor says. “Often, it’s the parents who are the keepers of the memory. I remember Michael Rose, but actually, my daughter Amber does not.”

Yet, even if people forget their imaginary friends, the process they used to create them and the way they interacted with them could have a lasting impact. “Imagination is not just a frivolous thing you outgrow,” says Gleason. Being able to remove oneself from reality and visit different times and places in our minds is an ability even adults rely on, she says.

And kids are a good reminder of the mind’s limitless power to fantasize. “When you’re doing research on children’s imagination,” says Taylor, “you develop a very deep respect for their imaginations and what they’re able to create.”

[Research shows that girls lose sight of their own “brilliance” at a young age.]

Meet the Writer

About Lauren J. Young

Lauren J. Young was Science Friday’s digital producer. When she’s not shelving books as a library assistant, she’s adding to her impressive Pez dispenser collection.

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