Inside Out’s Bing Bong and imaginary friends: An expert discusses the childhood benefits.

The Science Behind Inside Out’s Imaginary Friend: A Child Psychologist Evaluates Bing Bong

The Science Behind Inside Out’s Imaginary Friend: A Child Psychologist Evaluates Bing Bong

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
June 24 2015 10:44 AM

The Science Behind Inside Out’s Imaginary Friend: A Child Psychologist Evaluates Bing Bong

bing_bong
Bing Bong, Sadness, and Joy in Inside Out.

Photo by Pixar.

If you were one of the many, many moviegoers this past weekend who saw Inside Out, the name Bing Bong will mean something to you. He’s the effervescent, eccentric imaginary friend (voiced by Richard Kind) of Riley, the 11-year-old little girl at the center of the story. Bing Bong is a breakout star of sorts, tugging unrelentingly at the heartstrings—and tear ducts—of Inside Out viewers everywhere.

Aisha Harris Aisha Harris

Aisha Harris is a Slate culture writer and host of the Slate podcast Represent.

Much has been written about the film’s depiction of human emotions, and its accuracy in doing so (several psychologists served as consultants on the film). But Bing Bong is a special character, one that has been lost to the long-term memory recesses of Riley’s mind. For more insight into the idea of imaginary friends, and how they fit into our understanding of the childhood imagination, I spoke with Marjorie Taylor, a psychology professor at the University of Oregon and author of Imaginary Companions and the Children Who Create Them.

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Are imaginary friends common among children?

It depends on your definition. Some people just want to include the invisible imaginary friends, but sometimes an imaginary friend is based on an object, like the tiger in Calvin and Hobbes, a very special stuffed animal. So if you want to include the stuffed animals—and not just any old stuffed animal, but the ones that are really treated like a companion and talked to and listened to on a regular basis—and you follow children up to the age of 7, then about 65 percent of kids have had some experience at some point with an imaginary friend. If you just want to talk about invisible friends, it’s more like 37, 38 percent have had the experience—so it’s pretty common.

How do imaginary friends work, exactly—do kids actually believe that their imaginary friends are real?

They are very clear that it’s not real. Actually, it’s the question that motivated me 25 years ago to try to understand this: Do kids understand that their imaginary friends are pretend? … It’s hard for children, especially when you’re dealing with 4- and 5-year-olds, the difference between “is it real?” or “are you pretending it’s real?”

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So when you ask the straight up question, they might say yes, and sometimes they hedge the question like, “Well, I pretend it’s real,” or something like that.

But what we discovered after interviewing a lot of kids, is that they often spontaneously want to clarify the issue with us. So after we’ve been writing down everything they say and listening very carefully to the description of their imaginary friend, they’ll say, “You know it’s just a pretend girl?” or “It’s not a real one, it’s pretend, I just made her up.”

Why do you think they clarify that they’re only pretending?

I think sometimes the reason young children want to clarify it with us is that they want to make sure that we don’t accuse them of lying … As children get older, they get more secretive about it, because we think it’s really cute in 4 and 5-year-olds, but we think it’s less cute when a 10-year-old starts telling us about their imaginary friend.

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Some of our research has looked at if it’s okay to have an imaginary friend when you’re 12. And we did the work with children who were very high-risk kids, low socio-economic status, and really were not doing well at school, and were picked by their teacher as the ones who were likely to have problems down the road … We found that about nine and a half percent of [those 12 year olds] had imaginary friends. And then we followed these kids up to age 18 to find out the answer—are these that had the imaginary friends at age 12, are they the ones that really are doing poorly at age 18? And we found the opposite.  … So it was a sign of resilience, rather than a red flag.

In Inside Out, Riley is 11-years-old when Bing Bong disappears. At what age do kids tend to give up their imaginary friends?

We followed kids up to age 7 thinking that all the imaginary friends would be gone, and we found that at age 7 they were just as likely to have an imaginary friend as at age 4. I think that after that it peters out a little bit. Now in the movie, though, Bing Bong is in long-term memory, so he doesn’t seem to be really active—just hanging out in the long-term memory bank, and finally getting dumped and gradually disappearing. When we ask kids about their imaginary friends, they sometimes can’t remember what happened to them, they just stopped playing with them, just like you have a favorite doll or toy and you stop playing with it after awhile and move on to something else—it just fades away gradually. (Although some of them do get drowned in puddles, they get run over by cars, they move away, they go on sabbatical, all kinds of things.)

So it makes sense that 11-year-old Riley would abandon Bing Bong.

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Yeah, so the imaginary boyfriend seems more age-appropriate. I wondered what the imaginary boyfriend was going to do, and he was useful, although not very elaborated, he was sort of a clone of himself and didn’t have a lot of features. Whereas Bing Bong was highly elaborated, had clearly been around for a while when the child was younger and had lots of interesting characteristics, like crying candies.

In the movie, Bing Bong gets relegated to the Dump, where many of Riley’s memories are gone forever. How common is it for adults to forget that their imaginary friends ever existed?

It’s very common. They can forget the experience, though lots of times there are family stories about it—sometimes the parents are the keepers of the memories. So when we interview adults, sometimes they’ll say, “Well, I had imaginary friends, and I can’t remember it, but my mom says that I always wanted a place set at the dinner table, that his name was Mr. Nobody, he was a hippopotamus.” You know, the parents will recount these memories because for them it’s really cute, this dawning or emergence of this wild imagination that we celebrate in children.

And in fact, even children forget—when we interview the kids three years later, we say, “You know when you were 4, you told us about Digger,” and they’ll say, “Hm, I don’t remember that.”

One thing that I like about Bing Bong is clearly he had the little girl’s back, you know? … He came and saved the day and was a good guy. And I think too often imaginary friends have been seen as sort of the red flag that “this child needs something”—but I think it is a sign of resilience and of imagination, and when we look at kids with and without imaginary friends, we often see benefits for the kids who have them, not some kind of problem. So what I liked about the movie is that Bing Bong was a good thing.