Imaginary Companionship and Dissociation

Nicole Holcomb





Individuals with Imaginary Companionship have been linked to higher scores on the Dissociative Experience Scale; positive dissociating has been associated with self-actualization experiences. In this study, Imaginary Companionship experience was measured in correlation to self-actualization scores and scores on the DES. The participants include; male and female college students from a small Midwestern liberal arts college ages 17-26 years. The methodology of this experiment included the use of one questionnaire and one scale in a survey format. The Imaginary Companionship Questionnaire (Hoff), the Self-Actualization Scale (Maslow), and the Dissociative Experience Scale (Putnam). There appears to be a correlation between imaginary companionship and dissociative experience which has recently been linked to self-actualization experiences (Beere); the field of dissociation research may be benefited by the concluding information gathered with in this study.



              Children with the experience of having an Imaginary Companion have been associated with possessing an imaginative predisposition to engage in fantasy (Bouldin, 2006). According to Svendson (1934 p. 988) an imaginary companion is “an invisible character named in conversation with other persons, or played with directly for a period of time, having an air of reality for the child, but no apparent objective basis”. However, more recent studies indicate that imaginary companions in children serve various functions for the child including; control, companionship, nurturance, emotional outlet, alter ego, fantasy facilitation, and guidance. (Ball, L. Cassidy, K. and Lalonde, C. 1998-1999). Further, estimated percentages of children with a previous existence of an imaginary companion range from 33 to 66%, and are indicated to be more common in females than in males (Singer, 1973; Manosevitz, Prentice, and Wilson, 1973; Svendson, 1934). Cognitively speaking, (Piaget, 1962; J. L. Singer, 1973; Bouldin, 2006.) daydreaming and the engagement in fantasy play evolve from the same mental processes. According to J. L. Singer, 1973, 1977; a child’s ability to form, recombine, store, and integrate images over time is reflected in their fantasy play, which in turn reflects a general imaginative predisposition.  Piaget and Singer (1973, 1977) also postulate that “children use fantasy play to make sense of their world”. Further, imaginary companionship has been linked and found similar to that of hallucination like experiences, (Bonne, Canetti, Bachar, Kaplan, Shalev, 1999). Furthermore, Bonne, Canetti, Bachar, Kaplan, Shalev postulate that “individuals who possess imaginary companions in childhood are more likely to express creative aptitudes as adults”; moreover, “this capacity for vivid fantasy has been deemed indicative of a vulnerability toward dissociative phenomena and depersonalization”. A variety of diverse studies in which correlate the Dissociative Experience Scale with hypnotizability measures have produced correlations ranging from r=.08 to r=.61, depending on various factors including the population under study and the context in which the DES is administered (Carlson & Putnam, 1989). The DES, on average, tends to significantly correlate with standardized hypnotizability scales; possibly indicating that dissociative experience carries aspects of hypnotizability, and to a lesser extent the ability for an individual to become “absorbed” in a specific area or aspect of his / her life.

More recent research, primarily on the DES, indicates the existence of three sub-dimensions that simultaneously and collectively underlie dissociation. A factor analysis was performed on data from the DES totaling 1,574 subjects (Carlson et al., 1990), approximately 25% of which were normal controls, and the rest suffering from schizophrenia, anxiety, or neurological, dissociative, or affective disorders. Results, more specifically, a principal components analysis produced three sub-scales, together accounting for 49% of the variance and suggested three distinct and independent constructs that may be considered subscales of dissociation; amnesic experiences, absorption and imaginative involvement, and depersonalization and derealization. According to Ray W. (1992), amnesia may be described as either a short or long term nature inability to recall previous experiences; absorption being illustrated as the ability for an individual to be lost in the task at hand, whether watching a movie, reading a book, or driving down the highway; and depersonalization as the sense of not experiencing oneself as real. Imaginary Companionship has been linked and explored in the area of Dissociative Identity Disorder, previously known as Multiple Personality Disorder; suggesting that individuals diagnosed with DID have a more vivid imaginary companionship experience than those with out a DID diagnosis. In a recent study, (Dierker, unpublished) normal female college students who reported having had a vivid imaginary companion experience, similar to that of dissociative patients, possessed significantly higher scores on the DES than those whose experience was described as less vivid; indicating that the vividness of an imaginary companionship experience and not necessarily the existence of a dissociative disorder may pose as an indicator of DES scores.

The field of dissociation reaserach is seemingly uncertain about the nature of dissociation and the indivudals who dissociate; dissociative experiences have just recently been associated with positive causal factors (Beere, Pica, 1995). For instance, self-actualization experiences resemble dissociation, in that, they appear to be of a dissociative nature and carry aspects of depersonalization. In the past, dissociation was said to be the effect of traumatic experiences; although, further more recent research indicates that one may dissociate in positive situations as well (Beere, Pica, 1995). For example, intense religious experiences, while playing sports, hearing good news, and during sexual encounters are instances of reported possible self-actualization and may also resemble positive dissociative experiences. The three sub-scales of the DES, as a whole, are perceived to measure dissociation in a general psychopathological manner.

Little empirical research and measurements exist on the nature of positive dissociation, hence the use of the DES in this study.

            Dissociation research appears to be of a dissociative and unsure nature itself; floating back and forth between causual factors, definitions, and terms of measurement. The capacity to possess an imaginary companion is said to be one possible indicator of creative, imaginative, hypnotic, absorption and dissociative - like tendencies. For instance; the ability to watch television and become involved to the extent that at which, the world is then blocked out of perception. The field of dissociation research is quickly evolving and changing in an attempt to explicate a fraction of what dissociation is and how dissociation plays a role in identity and perception. Imaginary companionship appears to entail aspects of imaginative involvement, absorption, derealization, depersonalization, and identity investigation; if these aspects are utilized and carried out throughout the course of childhood and adolescence, the capacity for dissociation may also be exercised and increased in early adulthood.

Putnam’s definition of dissociation states that dissociation is “the lack of integration of thoughts, feelings, and experiences into the stream of consciousness and memory”. The previous definition appears to entail that of a negative underlying tone; defining dissociation in terms of psychopathology. Beere and Pica take an ulterior point of view, indicating that dissociation can be of a positive nature as well as psychopathological, Beere and Pica’s definition is as follows; “ a subjectively intense stimulus captures experience sharply and clearly, the most charged aspect of the experience is the meaning which it carries, the lived-experience embodies a determining significance for the person’s being-in-the-world, and the smooth integrated flow of experience is momentarily lost or dissociated”. According to Bernstein and Putnam 1986; “dissociation is appropriately seen as a continuum extending into the normal population”. However, the concept of a dissociative continuum and the use of the DES to measure dissociation has been challenged by Carlson et al., 1993; Schwartz, Frischholz, Braun, & Sachs, 1991; Ross, Jossi, & Currie, 1991; Ray, June, Turaj, &Lundy, 1992; signifying that the DES is not a uni-dimensional scale and that factor analytic studies supported this notion. According to Beere, 1994.; one need not be highly dissociative to dissociate during a positive situation”; during this study the previous concept in conjunction with the idea that the DES is not a uni-dimensional scale was considered and individual questions and subscales were a primary focus instead of a DES total; however, during this study, correlations were performed on the separate subscales producing significant positive correlations to one another; posing as a possible indicator the DES is indeed a uni-dimensional scale. Emphasis was placed on the subscales of imaginative involvement, depersonalization and derealization; however, sub-scales are said to differ between men and women (Sanders, Green, 1994). In a study by Sanders and Green, a DES factor solution for men suggests Factor I consists of imaginative involvement which include questions; 14, 16, 17, 18, 20, and 23. Factor II, or depersonalization and derealization, for men includes questions; 7, 11, 12, 13, and 28. Factor III, amnesia, consists of questions; 5, 6, 8, 25. Difference was found in factors for women and are as follows; Factor I, imaginative involvement; questions, 6, 10, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 20, 21, 23, and 24. Factor II, depersonalization and derealization also differs from that of the men; questions include; 7, 11, 12, 13, and 28. The third Factor for women consists of questions, 3, 4, and 5. Furthermore, individual subscales for men and women were a primary target during this study. Hypothesis 1; individuals with a previous existence of an imaginary companion scored significantly higher on the DES than those with out a previous existence of an imaginary companion. Hypothesis 2 states; those with DES totals over cut point 30.00 will be significantly positively correlated to Self-Actualization totals. Hypothesis 3 claims that females will have higher DES mean totals. Hypothesis 4 states that there will be a positive significant correlation between DES mean totals and Self-Actualization mean totals. Hypothesis 5 stating that the imaginary companion group’s Self-Actualization totals will be significantly different than those without an imaginary companion.



One hundred and twenty seven undergraduate students at a small-sized Midwestern liberal arts college in the United States participated in this study. The survey was administered in classrooms on campus. The subjects consisted of 45 males and 82 females. The study was approved by the Institutional Review Board of the college. The participants did not receive a payment for participating in the study.

Testing Materials

A survey was used as the method for the gathering of quantitative data; further, the data was then inputted into a statistical program, SPSS. Two scales and one questionnaire were utilized; Imaginary Companionship Questionnaire (Hoff), Self-

Actualization Scale (Maslow), and the Dissociative Experiences Scale (Putnam). Participants were first read a confidentiality clause and then asked to complete the survey. Individuals who did not have a previous imaginary companionship experience were asked to skip to section three. The number of participants who reported a previous existence of an imaginary companion was relatively low at 25, compared to participants who did not report an imaginary companion at 100. 127 out of 127 surveys were returned.


Research and the development of the imaginary companionship and dissociative experience study was segmented into three separate, yet connected sections; childhood imaginary companionship, self-actualization, and dissociation. Appendix 1 consists of an imaginary companionship questionnaire designed by Hoff, appendix 2 consists of a Self-Actualization survey designed by Maslow, and appendix 3 consists of Putnam’s Dissociative Experiences Scale.



            Hypothesis 1 was supported; individuals with a previous existence of an imaginary companion scored significantly higher on the DES than those with out a previous existence of an imaginary companion. Individuals with a previous existence of an imaginary companion mean DES totals = 34.91 and a standard deviation of 11.469; while those with out a history of an imaginary companion scored significantly lower on DES average totals = 27.87, with a standard deviation of 14.96.

The t-test reached significance at p = .03. Hypothesis 2; those with DES totals over cut point 30.00 were not significantly positively correlated to Self-Actualization totals, nor were individuals with DES totals under cut point 29.999. Individuals with DES totals greater than or equal to 30.00 will have a significant positive correlation with Self-Actualization totals was not significantly supported. A bivariate correlation with DES totals greater than or equal to the cutoff of 30.00 and those same individual’s Self-Actualization scores was performed yielding an r = -.073 with a p = .594; indicating the test was not significant. Individuals with DES means less than or equal to 29.999 was also insignificant; p = .937 and r = -.010. Hypothesis 3; females will have higher DES mean totals than men was insignificantly not supported, p = .096. Females n = 64.6% mean DES totals = 27.68 and a standard deviation of 14.52; while men n = 35.4% total DES scores were higher at 32.22 and a standard deviation of 14.35. Hypothesis 4 was not supported; there was not a positive significant correlation between DES mean totals and Self-Actualization mean totals, although the test yielded a significant negative correlation; r = -.251, p = .05. Hypothesis 5 remained significantly unsupported; the imaginary companion group’s Self-Actualization totals were not significantly different than those without an imaginary companion. A t-test was performed on individuals with a previous existence of an imaginary companion and their Self-Actualization mean totals were to individuals without an imaginary companion and their Self-Actualization mean totals, results are as follows; the imaginary companion group’s Self-Actualization total averages = 43.15 with a standard deviation of 4.19, while the non imaginary companion group’s scores Self-Actualization average totals = 43.93 with a standard deviation of 4.11, p = .096. A reliability analysis was run on the 28 item DES; Cronbach’s alpha = .926.



Table I.


DES Totals and Imaginary Companionship


Based on the results of the t-test comparing individuals with and with out imaginary companions those with imaginary companions scored significantly higher on the DES. The most encompassing subscale of the DES was imaginative involvement for both the men and the women; indicating that individuals with a previous existence of an imaginary companion may possess an imaginative predisposition, therefore scoring higher on the DES. Further, the IC group consisting of both men and women also scored higher on the two other subscales of the DES; depersonalization, derealization, and amnesia. Combined the three subscales are said be a valid measure of dissociation in a general manner, possibly signifying that the IC group may possess a dissociative predisposition. However, it may also be that the IC group’s experience of an imaginary companion yields a product which in this case may be higher dissociative scores on the DES. The significant small negative correlation between DES totals and Self-Actualization totals may indicate there is are two separate but related underlying continuums to dissociation; one of a negative and hence psychopathological nature and one in which is of a positive nature. It may also be that self-actualization experiences resemble dissociatitive experiences; however, the use of a self-actualization general self-report measure may have not been appropriate for this study. In the future, researchers may consider utilizing a self-report of individual peak-like experiences using a phenomenological reduction, to assist in gaining qualitative data for the development of self-actualization experiences measures.

The study should be replicated before any inferences may be made; the IC group was relatively low in numbers, hence, a lack of statistical power. Also, there was a larger number of females who completed this study compared to males; based on the notion that separate subscales should be used for each gender, combining DES totals for both sexes may carry reliability and validity problems. Further, the field of dissociation research is of a tentative and largely growing nature; the use of the DES in studies with other groups

may assist in the contribution to the field and facilitate an enhanced understanding of the nature of the dissociative phenomena.



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