There are some interesting ramifications of this. In the 1990s, human-computer-interaction researchers Reeves and Nass replicated social psychology experiments, but rather than interacting with other people, participants interacted with computers. For example, the researchers put a blue ribbon around a participant’s arm and a blue piece of paper around a computer’s monitor. Participants were told that that computer was on their team, and that another computer, adorned with red paper, was on the other team. Participants believed that the spell checker on the “teammate” computer caught more errors. This is because we think about computers (or characters in fiction, or gods) using the same reasoning processes we do when we reason about other people. That experiment is just one of many fascinating (and often hilarious) examples.

The other interesting effect of this is that we treat virtual people as real people. Experiments show that, at some level, people tend to think of the characters on their favorite TV shows as personal friends—even if those characters are wizards or vampires.

Similarly, when we interact with “friends” on social-networking sites or through texting, it can feel like we’re getting quality social contact, but we are not. It turns out that face-to-face interaction with other people—real people, right in front of us, not characters on TV or friends we communicate via text messages—is absolutely vital for longevity and happiness. In fact, it is a larger contributor than exercise or diet!2