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What Do Invisible Friends Know? Imaginary Companions, God, and Theory of Mind

J. Bradley Wigger, Katrina Paxson & Lacey Ryan
International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 2013, 23 (1).


Theory of mind (ToM) research has been carried out in relation to a variety of human and nonhuman agents such as parents, friends, God, Mayan forest spirits, and animals. The present study adds a new agent to the list - the imaginary/invisible friend. Three types of ToM tasks were administered to 36 children, ages 2 to 8, who had invisible friends at the time of the tasks: occluded picture, background knowledge, and surprising contents tasks. The knowledge attributed to imaginary companions was compared to the knowledge attributed to God, as well as to a human and to a dog. Results showed that younger children tended to attribute knowledge to all agents, including imaginary friends. Older children treated God differently from all other agents, but the invisible friend was also treated differently from the human and the dog. Implications regarding cognitive development and anthropomorphism are considered, as well as for the in-between character of invisible friends.