Imaginary friends or imaginary companions are a psychological and social phenomenon where a friendship or other interpersonal relationship takes place in the imagination rather than external physical reality. Imaginary friends are fictional characters created for improvisational role-playing. They often have elaborate personalities and behaviors. Although they may seem very real to their creators, children usually understand that their imaginary friends are not real. The first studies focusing on imaginary friends are believed to have been conducted during the 1890s.
Imaginary friends are made often in childhood, sometimes in adolescence, and rarely in adulthood. They often function as tutelaries when played with by a child. They reveal, according to several theories of psychology, a child's anxieties, fears, goals and perceptions of the world through that child's conversations. They are, according to some children, physically indistinguishable from real people, while others say they see their imaginary friends only in their heads, and still others cannot see the friend at all but can sense his/her presence. Imaginary friends are more often seen as abnormal in adults, whereas quite common in children.
Few adults report having imaginary friends; however, as Eileen Kennedy-Moore points out, "Adult fiction writers often talk about their characters taking on a life of their own, which may be an analogous process to children’s invisible friends." In addition, Marjorie Taylor and colleagues have found that fiction writers are more likely than average to have had imaginary companions as children.
It has been theorized that children with imaginary companions may develop language skills and retain knowledge faster than children without them, which may be because these children get more linguistic practice than their peers as a result of carrying out "conversations" with their imaginary friends.
Kutner (n.d.) reported that 65% of seven-year old children report they have had an imaginary companion at some point in their lives. He further reported:
Imaginary companions are an integral part of many children's lives. They provide comfort in times of stress, companionship when they're lonely, someone to boss around when they feel powerless, and someone to blame for the broken lamp in the living room. Most important, an imaginary companion is a tool young children use to help them make sense of the adult world.
Taylor, Carlson & Gerow (c2001: p. 190) hold that:
despite some results suggesting that children with imaginary companions might be superior in intelligence, it is not true that all intelligent children create them.
Pediatrician Benjamin Spock believed that imaginary friends past age four indicated that something was "lacking" in the child or his environment. Some child development professionals believe that the presence of imaginary friends past early childhood signals a serious psychiatric disorder. Some have theorized that children who hold on to imaginary friends past school-age are stigmatized.
Other professionals feel that imaginary friends are common among school-age children and are part of normal social-cognitive development.
Marjorie Taylor identified middle school children with imaginary friends and followed up six years later as they were completing high school. At follow-up, those who had imaginary friends in middle school displayed better coping strategies but a "low social preference for peers." She suggested that imaginary friends may directly benefit children's resiliency and positive adjustment.
Famous imaginary friends
- Wilson, imaginary friend of Chuck Nolland in Cast Away.
- Tony, imaginary friend of Danny in The Shining.
- Charles Herman, imaginary friend of John Nash in A Beautiful Mind.
- Captain Howdy, imaginary friend of Regan McNeil in The Exorcist.
- Ivan, imaginary friend of Trevor Reznik in The Machinist.
- Fred, imaginary friend of Elizabeth Cronin in Drop Dead Fred.
- Tyler Durden, imaginary friend of the unnamed narrator in Fight Club.
- Harvey, imaginary friend of Elwood P. Dowd in Harvey
In Other Media
- Bloo and many of the characters from Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends
- Hobbes, imaginary friend of Calvin in the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes.
- Plank, imaginary friend of Johnny 2x4 in Ed, Edd n Eddy.
- Marc Imran and Elle Maya friends of Hareez, in Real Life.
- Elizabeth's (Stephanie Berrington) imaginary friend Gretchen in Father Goose.
- Nadine, imaginary friend of D.W in "Arthur (TV Series)"
- Taylor, M. (1999) Imaginary Companions and the Children Who Create Them. New York: Oxford University Press.
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- Kennedy-Moore, Eileen (2013) "Imaginary Friends: Are invisible friends a sign of social problems?" Psychology Today; Growing Friendships blog. 31 January 2013.  (accessed: 24 May 2013)
- Taylor, M., Hodges, S. D., & Kohányi, A. (2002-2003). The Illusion of Independent Agency: Do adult fiction writers experience their characters as having minds of their own? Imagination, Cognition and Personality, 22(4), 361-380.
- University of Manchester (8 March 2005). "Imaginary Friendships Could Boost Child Development". ScienceDaily. Retrieved 9 November 2011.
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- News in Science – Imaginary friends open up fantastic world – 15 May 2006[dead link]
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- Taylor, M., Hulette, A.C., Dishion, T. J., (2010). Longitudinal Outcomes of Young High-Risk Adolescents With Imaginary Companions. Developmental Psychology, 46(6), 1632-1636.
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- Imaginary Friends with Dr Evan Kidd podcast interview with Dr Evan Kidd of La Trobe University