Did you have a Tamagotchi as a child, or have you played a similar game where you had to take care of a pet or person (e.g., Nintendogs)? Did you invest a lot of time taking care of it? I know I did. I also had pretty positive feelings towards my Tamagotchi and Nintendog (a cute corgi). Interestingly, it’s possible that how I felt towards my virtual pets related to how I felt towards others in the non-virtual world.1 While reading a recent, currently free to access, issue of the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, I learned that there’s a computer program that you can play to try your hand at being a parent. The child is born and ages like a non-virtual child, but does so at a rapid rate. The choices that you make for it are irreversible. Researchers wanted to know if people’s feelings towards a “virtual child” were related to comfort with getting close to others in real life.
We’ve written about attachment theory a lot (see here for articles, but start with this one). To recap, from the time people are young, they learn whether others can be counted on in times of need.2 People who learn that others can be counted on become secure. People who learn that others can’t be counted on become anxious and/or avoidant. People who are higher in attachment anxiety worry that others will abandon them. People who are higher in attachment avoidance are uncomfortable with being psychologically and emotionally close to others, and seek independence when distressed. There hasn’t been much research on how attachment relates to attitudes towards having children. However, Rholes and colleagues3,4 found that people higher in attachment avoidance are less likely to want children and more likely to believe that they will not relate well to children compared to people lower in attachment avoidance. Thus, attachment avoidance relates to how people feel about children in real life, but what about virtual children? Researchers expected that people higher in attachment avoidance would have less positive feelings towards raising a virtual child than people lower in attachment avoidance.1
How they did it: 145 students each raised a virtual child as part of an assignment for a university course. The students were able to name and determine the physical characteristics of the child, but gender was randomly assigned to each child. The students invested a fair bit time in their child (roughly 20 hours). For 12 weeks, students had to do things like feed and discipline their virtual child, and then write about their experience. They were graded on what they wrote. When 12 weeks were up, they answered questions about their attitudes towards their virtual child. Questions determined how positively students felt towards their child, how secure they thought their child was, and how willing they were to be there for their child. They also completed a measure of their own attachment anxiety and avoidance.
What they found: How well students did on the assignment was related to how positively they felt towards their child, how secure they thought their child was, and how willing they were to be there for their child, so the researchers took this into account when analyzing the rest of the results. As you might expect, people who did well on the assignment had more positive attitudes towards their child, thought their child was more secure, and were more willing to be there for their child than people who didn’t do well on the assignment.
People who were higher in attachment avoidance didn’t do as well on the assignment as people lower in attachment avoidance. The researchers took this to mean that those higher in attachment avoidance weren’t putting as much effort into the assignment (raising the child). Moreover, beyond how well they did on the assignment, people higher in attachment avoidance held less positive feelings towards raising a virtual child, thought their child was less secure, and were less willing to put effort into being there for their child than people lower in attachment avoidance.
Take away: This research shows that how comfortable people are with getting close to others in real life is linked to how they feel and behave towards virtual beings. As virtual reality technology progresses and becomes more popular (and more like the content of a sci-fi movie), understanding how humans relate to the virtual world becomes more important. This study makes me wonder about the types of relationships that we’ll have in the future and reminds me of the philosophical question: “What is reality?”
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1Symons, D. K., Adams, S., & Smith, K. H. (2016). Adult attachment style and caregiver attitudes after raising a virtual child. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 33, 1054-1096. DOI: 10.1177/0265407515616710
2Mikulincer, M., & Shaver, P. R. (2003). The attachment behavioral system in adulthood: Activation, psychodynamics, and interpersonal processes. In M. P. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (pp. 53-152). San Diego, CA: Elsevier Academic Press.
3Rholes, W. S., Simpson, J. A., & Blakely, B. S. (1995). Adult attachment styles and mothers’ relationships with their young children. Personal Relationships, 2, 35-54.
4Rholes, W. S., Simpson, J. A., Blakely, B. S., Lanigan, L., & Allen, E. A. (1997). Adult attachment styles, the desire to have children, and working models of parenthood. Journal of Personality, 65, 357-385.
Dr. Lisa Hoplock - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Lisa's research examines how personality traits like self-esteem and attachment influence interpersonal processes in ambiguous social situations -- situations affording both rewards and costs -- such as social support contexts, relationship initiation, and marriage proposals.