Loneliness distorts perception. The need for human connection is so strong that if you cannot connect other human beings you will develop a relationship with a pet rock. Or better, you will be more likely to mistake a doll for a human being.
It’s not just a question of lowering our standards when we are alone. More importantly, when we are feeling isolated, disconnected and bereft our condition will distort our perception… to the point of believing that a doll is a human being.
So says recent research by Harvard postdoctoral fellow Katherine Powers.
Business Week summarizes the study:
It’s an intuitive enough finding; the desirability of friendship and the idea that we’d therefore lower our standards if necessary to try to attain it makes sense. What is striking, though, is that loneliness can affect our perception at such a basic level, and that it could have counterproductive effects: A heightened awareness for social information is helpful in trying to find and make friends, an inability to tell fake people from real ones is not. But maybe the behavior is adaptive in another way. Recent research has shown that loneliness can have dramatic health impacts, and even shorten our lives. In situations where there aren’t any good friend options—a desert island, say—it might make sense to fool ourselves into believing that inanimate objects are animate, to stave off not only the psychological but the physical effects of solitude.
The pain of solitude is such that we are all prone to accept anyone or anything as a stand-in.
If that is true, why not computer avatars?
Business Week says:
In that sense, the animacy study’s findings are hopeful, in a creepy way—the lonelier a person is, the easier it is to assuage that loneliness, perhaps with a simple computer avatar or a not particularly sophisticated robot.
Of course, we suspect that it is better to make a friend with another human being and to make a friend with someone of good character, thus to establish a durable connection than to befriend a pet rock or a robot.
Perhaps a robot is better than nothing, but still. And we ought also to ask whether computer games and social media that produce complex relationships with avatars facilitate or detract from true friendship.
About the question of skewed perception, we see it when someone falls in love with the wrong person.
Someone who feels alone and isolated is more likely, the research suggests, to be blinded by love. He or she is less likely to see the faults in a prospective lover and will idealize that person beyond reason.
Feelings of loneliness make it more likely that someone will fall in love with the wrong person. And loneliness will make it more likely that people who fall desperately in love be more threatened by the loss of love. Thus, they will be more likely to do whatever is necessary, even to the point of accepting abuse, in order to maintain the relationship.
This means: if you are feeling lonely you are vulnerable to being deceived. If you are feeling lonely your perceptions are very likely to be askew. If that is your situation ask a friend or a parent to offer a fair evaluation before you fall head-over-heels....
For a social being, human connection is a vital need. In the absence of prospective friends, humans are capable of developing friendly relationships with dolls, avatars, pets and robots. The lonelier they are the more they are likely to humanize the inanimate and the inhuman.