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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.

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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.

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