Sunday, January 4, 2009

Creating Social Connection Through Inferential Reproduction

ResearchBlogging.orgMost of us sometimes anthropomorphise things around us. We do this in various ways - talking to them, seeing similarities between them and proper agents, treating them as though they had beliefs or feelings. We also sometimes impute intentional explanations to non-intentional phenomena, such as the rain -- or the supernatural being -- that 'knew' there was a picnic on the go.

Most of us are also sometimes lonely. Do loneliness and anthropomorphising have anything to do with each other? The authors of this study hypothesised that they do, and went on to find that they do. Lonely people anthropomorphise more in two ways - they are more likely to anthropomorphise "nonhuman agents such as mechanical devices and nonhuman animals to make them appear more humanlike" and by "increasing belief in the existence of commonly anthropomorphized religious agents". Here's the abstract:
People are motivated to maintain social connection with others, and those who lack social connection with other humans may try to compensate by creating a sense of human connection with nonhuman agents. This may occur in at least two waysÑby anthropomorphizing nonhuman agents such as nonhuman animals and gadgets to make them appear more humanlike and by increasing belief in commonly anthropomorphized religious agents (such as God). Three studies support these hypotheses both among individuals who are chronically lonely (Study 1) and among those who are induced to feel lonely (Studies 2 and 3). Additional findings suggest that such results are not simply produced by any negative affective state (Study 3). These results have important implications not only for understanding when people are likely to treat nonhuman agents as humanlike (anthropomorphism), but also for understanding when people treat human agents as nonhuman (dehumanization).
Here's a run-down of main points of the three studies:

Study 1

20 volunteers completed an on-line survey which asked questions about anthropomorphic responses to four hypothetical gadgets, as well as assessing their level of loneliness. More lonely subjects on average gave higher ratings on anthropomorphic dimensions. This is correlation but not cause, a point that study 2 aimed to address.

Study 2

Here the loneliness variable was an experimental manipulation, rather than a self-report measure of general level of loneliness. Subjects comprised avowed believers in God, and avowed non-believers. In a standard social psychology paradigm all completed the 90-question Eysenck Personality Questionnaire, and were the told their actual extroversion score (to increase credibility) and offered a putative prediction relating to their future life. Half of each group (believers and non) were told that they would be lonely later, and half that they would not. All subjects then completed a set of questions about their belief in supernatural agents and processes of various kinds (ghosts, curses, miracles). Believers who received the "future lonely" manipulation had increased belief in supernatural agency compared to believers in the "future not lonely" condition, and than non-believers in general.

One reasonable concern here is that it is generally bad to be told that you'll be lonely, and so the measured response is to negative affect, rather than loneliness specifically. Study 3 attempted to address this worry.

Study 3

Subjects watched video clips, being asked to empathise with the protagonists. The clips were chosen to evoke one of three conditions: Disconnectedness, fear, and a 'control' clip showing positive (non-fear, non-lonely) social interaction.

Following the viewing subjects completed the same degree of belief in supernatural agents test as used in Study 2, and to think of a pet they owned or knew and pick from a list of 14 traits the 3 that they felt best described the pet in question. The list included anthropomorphic traits and non-anthropomorphic ones. Finally, subjects were shown a series of 20 ambiguous figures and asked to say what they saw in each one. The figures were designed so that some suggested faces (see figure below).

It was found that subjects in the disconnected condition reported stronger belief in supernatural agents than those in the other conditions, including the fear condition. Participants in the disconnected condition were also more likely to select anthropomorphic traits for the pet they were imagining than participants in the other two conditions. Finally, participants in the fear condition spontaneously reported seeing more faces than participants in the other two conditions, suggesting that as predicted that fear is distinguishable from loneliness in this respect.

So there you go. This doesn't tell us everything about loneliness or anthropomorphising. (See an earlier article on this blog about how loneliness is associated with feeling cold.) It tells us something useful about both, and about one of the sources of religious belief. This work is related to, and should be read alongside, recent reports that loss of control leads to increased degree of superstition. There are all kinds of things that might make us fumble for Gods, and there are more ways of feeling weak and needy than plain loneliness.

Nicholas Epley, Scott Akalis, Adam Waytz, John T. Cacioppo (2008). Creating Social Connection Through Inferential Reproduction: Loneliness and Perceived Agency in Gadgets, Gods, and Greyhounds Psychological Science, 19 (2), 114-120 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02056.x


Michael Meadon said...

John Hawks has a pretty good critique of the loss of control leading to superstition paper:

Doctor Spurt said...

That's not the paper I had in mind, but thanks for the link. I don't have the one I did have in mind ready to hand, but it's an experiment, where subjects manipulated to have less control were more likely to make superstitious inferences. A different thing entirely. I'll dig it up - I want to blag it.

T-REX said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
T-REX said...

It reminds me the scene in the movie castway when a lonely and stranded Tom hanks paints a rugby ball with eyes and a mouth and makes it his truted friend. seems movie makers always have an inkling of things.

Doctor Spurt said...

Here's a write up of the piece I was thinking of, Michael. It's been blogged so well at 'Not Exactly Rocket Science' that it's off my list at least for now: