Imaginary friends, real benefits

Don’t be concerned about imaginary friends, they are teaching your child to communicate, a La Trobe University researcher has found.

Children aged between four and six who have imaginary friends are better able to get their point across than their contemporaries who do not, psychologist Evan Kidd and colleague Anna Roby from the University of Manchester showed. The results are being presented at Fresh Science at Melbourne Museum this week.

“Being a good communicator requires that you understand what information your conversational partner needs to know,” Evan says. “Children with imaginary friends have a lot of practice at inventing interactions between their imaginary friends and themselves, and we think being in charge of both sides of the conversation facilitates their development of conversational skills.”

Imaginary friends are very common in young children. Some estimates suggest as many as 65% of children have one. Children who have imaginary friends are generally first born or only children, aged between 3 – 9-years, and very creative.

The researchers assessed the ability of children to communicate by asking them to discriminate and describe one of a series of similar pictures so that it was identifiable to an adult. The results showed that those children who had an imaginary friend were better able to take the viewpoint of others into consideration.

“Contrary to common depictions in popular culture, there are real benefits to having an imaginary friend,” says Evan.

“But with some exceptions, the depiction of imaginary friends in popular culture has typically been negative, such as in films like Donnie Darko or Drop Dead Fred, where the characters rely on imaginary characters due to some internal malaise”.

The children’s experience with their imaginary friends is generally positive and beneficial, he says. “This is because having an imaginary friend is a special case of pretend play, which has long been known by psychologists to be an essential component of normal development.”

Further research has suggested that these benefits are long-lasting. Evan recently completed a study that showed that university students 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.

The research has been accepted for publication in one of the most prestigious developmental psychology journals – Developmental Science.

Evan Kidd is one of 15 early-career scientists presenting their research to the public for the first time thanks to Fresh Science, a national program sponsored by the Federal Government.

Other stories released today:

  • Bilbies bring new life to desert dunes (Sydney)
  • A very small future for mining (Adelaide)

For further information, contact Evan Kidd on 0433 533 664 or

For Fresh Science contact: Sarah Brooker on 0413 332 489 and Niall Byrne on 0417 131 977 or

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