Imaginary friends (Issue 11, 2009)

La Trobe University psychologists reveal the benefits of children having imaginary friends. Dr Evan Kidd (Postdoctoral Fellow in the La Trobe School of Psychological Science) and colleague Anna Roby explored the world of imaginary companions and concluded that one of the advantages is the ability to communicate better than other children.

Dr Kidd conducted a study on 44 children, which showed that the 22 children who had imaginary friends were better able to get their point across than were children of the same age who did not have one.

‘Children with imaginary friends have a lot of practice at inventing interactions between their imaginary friends and themselves. We think that this is what facilitates their development of conversational skills – being in charge of both sides of the conversation,’ said Dr Kidd. The researchers also discovered that children with an invisible friend or personified toy had a better social understanding, were generally first born or only children and were very creative.

‘They were all very creative. The children treat these ‘friends’ as real, play with them throughout the day and refer to them in conversation.’

One child reported having a companion named Sarah, who had a pet dragon. Another enjoyed a friendship with an imaginary family, Mr and Mrs Driller who had two children.

The phenomenon of the imaginary friend is really misunderstood, according to Dr Kidd.

‘People think it is rare when in fact past studies have shown that around 65 per cent of children aged between three and nine had imaginary friends. Others think it is a red flag – thanks to the depiction of imaginary friends in popular culture like Donnie Darko or Drop Dead Fred, where the characters rely on imaginary characters due to some internal malaise. Rather, this special type of pretend play appears to be an essential component of normal development,’ says Dr Kidd.

Dr Kidd has gone onto establish in further research that the benefits of imaginary companions are long lasting. His study of university students showed that those who recalled having an imaginary companion in childhood were more creative, more achievement oriented, and more emotionally responsive than students who didn’t have one.

Dr Kidd is a Charles La Trobe Research Fellow at the School of Psychological Science. His current research interests include sentence processing in children and adults, the acquisition of complex sentences, the acquisition of verb argument structure and verbal morphology, how children deal with lexical and syntactic ambiguity in acquisition, and the linguistic skills of children with imaginary companions. 

Listen to the La Trobe podcast of Dr Kidd discussing imaginary friends.