Menus Subscribe Search

Teddy Bears Soften Pain of Social Exclusion

• April 14, 2011 • 10:47 AM

New research from Singapore suggests touching a stuffed animal can counteract the tendency of ostracized people to engage in antisocial behavior.

We’ve all been there: The gang is going out for some fun, and we haven’t been invited. To hell with them, we think. In fact, to hell with everybody.

Given how painful social exclusion can be, it’s no surprise that people feeling this particular form of rejection are less likely to help others. But new research suggests this sullen attitude evaporates when they reunite with an old furry friend.

Never underestimate the power of a teddy bear.

A trio of researchers from the National University of Singapore — Kenneth Tai, Xue Zheng and Jayanth Narayanan — concludes that “touching a teddy bear mitigates the negative effects of exclusion,” leading to increased levels of cooperative, helpful behavior. They report the stuffed animal seems to have “specific psychological significance as a source of comfort and positive feeling,” brightening the mood of those who are otherwise feeling ostracized.

Tai and his colleagues describe two experiments that support their thesis. The first featured 181 undergraduates who completed a personality profile and then received false feedback, which was supposedly based on their answers.

In fact, one-third of the participants (chosen at random) were told, “You are the type who will end up alone later in life.” Another third were told “You are the type who has rewarding relationships through life.” The final third (the control group) received the message “You’re likely to be accident-prone later in life.”

Next, the participants were asked to evaluate the appeal of a particular teddy bear. For half of the students, the stuffed animal was placed on their laps, and they were encouraged to hold and touch it for several minutes. For the other half, the bear was placed on a table, too far away for any physical contact.

Finally, the experimenter asked the participants to volunteer to participate in one or more of three upcoming studies.

Of the participants who were feeling alone and excluded, those who had touched the teddy bear volunteered more often than those who had not. This effect was absent for members of the other two groups.

The researchers repeated these results in a second experiment that featured a different method of manipulation (ostracized students were told “no one chose you as someone they wanted to work with”) and a different form of altruistic behavior (whether and how much money to give away out of a $10 allotment).

Among participants who felt like outcasts, those who touched the teddy bear were more generous than those who had not had contact with the stuffed animal. Once again, touching the bear had no impact on the other participants.

Why does physical contact with teddy bring out the best in people who are feeling left out?

“One interesting implication could be that touching an inanimate object such as a teddy bear may potentially increase oxytocin levels,” the researchers write. Alternatively, “touching a teddy bear may potentially decrease cortisol levels of excluded individuals, and in turn alleviate the stress of exclusion.”

Tai and his colleagues suspect that a person’s tendency to anthropomorphize a teddy bear may be a key factor in stress reduction. They suspect touching a soft blanket with similar tactile qualities wouldn’t have the same effect, although a definitive answer to that question will have to await further research.

In the meantime, it’s good to know such a simple, commonplace object can lift one’s mood and inspire willingness to engage with people in a positive way. The moral is clear: When you’re feeling blue, turn to Winnie-the-Pooh.

Sign up for the free Miller-McCune.com e-newsletter.

“Like” Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Add Miller-McCune.com news to your site.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 17 • 4:00 PM

Why Gun Control Groups Have Moved Away From an Assault Weapons Ban

A decade after the ban expired, gun control groups say that focusing on other policies will save more American lives.


September 17 • 2:00 PM

Can You Make Two People Like Each Other Just By Telling Them That They Should?

OKCupid manipulates user data in an attempt to find out.


September 17 • 12:00 PM

Understanding ISIL Messaging Through Behavioral Science

By generating propaganda that taps into individuals’ emotional and cognitive states, ISIL is better able motivate people to join their jihad.


September 17 • 10:00 AM

Pulling Punches: Why Sports Leagues Treat Most Offenders With Leniency

There’s a psychological explanation for the weak punishment given to Ray Rice before a video surfaced that made a re-evaluation unavoidable.


September 17 • 9:44 AM

No Innovation Without Migration: Portlandia Is Dying

Build an emerald city. Attract the best and brightest with glorious amenities. They will come and do nothing.



September 17 • 8:00 AM

Why Don’t We Have Pay Toilets in America?

Forty years ago, thanks to an organization founded by four high school friends, human rights beat out the free market—and now we can all pee for free.


September 17 • 6:32 AM

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists’ appetites.


September 17 • 6:00 AM

The Grateful Dig: An Archaeologist Excavates a Tie-Dyed Modern Stereotype

What California’s senior state archaeologist discovered in the ruins of a hippie commune.


September 17 • 4:00 AM

The Strong Symbolic Power of Emptying Pockets

Researchers find the symbolic act of emptying a receptacle can impact our behavior, and not for the better.


September 16 • 4:00 PM

Why Is LiveJournal Helping Russia Block a Prominent Critic of Vladimir Putin?

The U.S. blogging company is showing an error message to users inside Russia who try to read the blog of Alexei Navalny, a prominent politician and critic of the Russian government.


September 16 • 2:00 PM

Man Up, Ladies! … But Not Too Much

Too often, women are asked to display masculine traits in order to be successful in the workplace.



September 16 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Brilliant 12-Year-Old?

Charles Wang is going to rule the world.


September 16 • 10:09 AM

No Innovation Without Migration: The Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance wasn’t a place, but an era of migration. It would have happened even without New York City.


September 16 • 10:00 AM

A Law Professor Walks Into a Creative Writing Workshop

One academic makes the case for learning how to write.



September 16 • 7:23 AM

Does Not Checking Your Buddy’s Facebook Updates Make You a Bad Friend?

An etiquette expert, a social scientist, and an old pal of mine ponder the ever-shifting rules of friendship.



September 16 • 6:12 AM

3-D Movies Aren’t That Special

Psychologists find that 3-D doesn’t have any extra emotional impact.


September 16 • 6:00 AM

What Color Is Your Pygmy Goat?

The fierce battle over genetic purity, writ small. Very small.



September 15 • 4:00 PM

The Average Prisoner Is Visited Only Twice While Incarcerated

And black prisoners receive even fewer visitors.


September 15 • 2:00 PM

Gambling With America’s Health

The public health costs of legal gambling.


September 15 • 12:23 PM

The Scent of a Conservative

We are attracted to the body odor of others with similar political beliefs, according to new research.


Follow us


Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists' appetites.

3-D Movies Aren’t That Special

Psychologists find that 3-D doesn't have any extra emotional impact.

To Protect Against Meltdowns, Banks Must Map Financial Interconnections

A new model suggests looking beyond balance sheets, studying the network of investment as well.

Big Government, Happy Citizens?

You may like to talk about how much happier you'd be if the government didn't interfere with your life, but that's not what the research shows.

Give Yourself a Present for the Future

Psychologists discover that we underestimate the value of looking back.

The Big One

One in three drivers in Brooklyn's Park Slope—at certain times of day—is just looking for parking. The same goes for drivers in Manhattan's SoHo. September/October 2014 new-big-one-3

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.