Many, if not most of us, stopped talking to dolls or action figures when we were kids, replacing them with actual social interactions among friends and family. But not everyone adjusts to social interactions in the same way. In fact, around 13 years old, many people develop social anxiety disorder, characterized by a lack of social relationships out of fear of being judged or scrutinized. This lack of human connection can really mess with a person’s perception, even causing them to see inanimate objects as more human.

Katherine Powers, lead author of a new study looking into this issue, said in a press release that having an increased sensitivity to animacy, or the way that something looks alive, “suggests that people are casting a wide net when looking for people they can possibly relate to, which may ultimately help them maximize opportunities to renew social connections.” However, she says that this sensitivity is leading people to develop relationships with not only their pets, but online avatars and technology like computers, robots, and cell phones.

If you’re a frequent viewer of TLC’s My Strange Addiction, then you’ve probably seen the episode featuring Davecat, a man who’s developed both sexual and emotional relationships with life-sized dolls. In an interview with The Atlantic, he speaks about times that he’s had difficulty developing relationships with women.

“Our relationship started out alright, but several months into it, whenever I’d attempt to get together after work with her, she'd always have something come up,” he said. “I was beating myself up over it when I realized: Why am I wasting my time trying to get her to hang out and be romantically involved with me, when I have a Doll who is in love with me at home?” Though we can’t conclude that Davecat has social anxiety disorder, it’s likely that the problems he faced pushed him toward deeper relationships with his dolls.

The current study found that people with weaker social ties were more likely to see doll faces, or pseudo-doll faces, as real. In their first experiment, they asked 30 college students to look at images of faces and to decide which ones were animate or inanimate. The faces were computerized to show images ranging from that of a doll to a human, and pseudo-faces in-between. The exercise was then followed by a personality test, looking at how much they desired social interactions; participants were asked to rate their agreement with statements like “I want other people to accept me.”

Indeed, they found a link between a desire for social connections and a tendency to consider faces further on the doll-side of the spectrum as human.

Doll Faces
Participants were asked to determine which faces were real, and which weren't. Powers, et al. Dartmouth College

In a second experiment, the researchers proved causality by taking a separate group of students and asking them to complete another personality test, after which they received feedback. However, the feedback they got was randomized, with some students who weren’t necessarily longing for social connections being told they’d have lonely futures, and others being told they’d have long-lasting relationships — it was also personalized to seem convincing. They then went on to look at the faces, and predictably, those who were told they’d be lonely were more likely to give life to faces to toward the doll side of the spectrum.

“What’s really interesting here is the degree of variability in this perception,” Powers said. “Even though two people may be looking at the same face, the point at which they see life and decide that person is worthy of meaningful social interaction may not be the same. Our findings show that it depends on an individual’s social relationship status and motivations for future social interactions.”

About 15 million Americans live with social anxiety disorder. Although it can certainly interfere with their daily lives, and affect how they develop relationships, it is possible to find a way out. These treatments usually involve some form of psychotherapy, whether it’s through exposure (slowly working toward more in-depth social interactions) or counseling.

Source: Powers K, Worsham A, Freeman J, Wheatley T, Heatherton T. Social Connection Modulates Perceptions of Animacy. Psychological Science. 2014.