The Science of Why Kids Love Teddy Bears and Stuffed Animals

Some teddy bears are just tchotchkes. So what's the difference between those ones and the ones that help? And how does one become the other?

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There will be a teddy bear. There always is. Push back against the plush tide and it crashes, all fur and baleful plastic eyes, in the living room regardless. Stuffed animals are not simply ubiquitous — more than half of American adults still have their childhood teddy bears — they’re ubiquitous for a reason. Scientists regularly find that so-called “transitional objects” like teddy bears help children handle emotions and limit stress. In the aftermath of the 2012 school shooting in Newton, Connecticut, well-meaning donors sent 7,000 teddy bears to survivors and their families. This was an act of sentimentality, but it was also a practical psychological measure. Teddy bears can be meaningfully helpful.

But not all of them are. Some teddy bears are just tchotchkes. So what’s the difference between those ones and the ones that help? And how does one become the other? These are complicated questions because the answers are to be found in the murky realms of emotion. But there are answers. The human-bear bond may be ineffable, but the dynamic is fairly well understood.

Studies have shown that the modern teddy bear is — perhaps purposefully and perhaps through a quasi-evolutionary sort of selection — engineered to have the precise facial features and dimensions that the human brain yearns to cuddle. Beyond cuddling, these fuzzy creatures are uniquely capable of dampening psychological trauma, studies suggest, and replacing absentee parents. And scientists suspect that some children become so attached to their optimized teddies that they attach individual, life-like significance to the inanimate object.

How To Design The Optimal Teddy Bear

Softness is key. One large, robust study found that one in three children expressed attachment to an inanimate object, but that only 7 percent of these children were enamored with a hard toy such as an action figure (sorry Woody and Buzz). Thirty-one percent of the kids were attached to teddy bears or other soft dolls, beating attachment to security blankets by several percentage points but falling shy of the 38 percent who clung to soft fabric (mostly rags or pieces of cloth).

But teddy bears are not just capitalizing on the human urge to cuddle with something soft. They’re designed to elicit nurturance and affection, according to a 2012 paper. Citing research conducted by the legendary zoologist Konrad Lorenz in 1950, the authors note that a short face, large forehead, protruding cheeks, and maladjusted limb movements all naturally seem to make properly proportioned humans glassy-eyed. Subsequent studies have confirmed Lorenz’s suspicion. Stephen J. Gould went so far as to claim that, as Disney’s early and mischievous Mickey Mouse evolved into its lovable modern form, Mickey’s face evolved accordingly.

Historically, teddy bears have walked the same hallowed ground. The authors of the 2012 paper note that one of the first teddy bears from 1903 — derived from a picture of President Teddy Roosevelt with a brown bear — had a low forehead and a long snout. Over time, vintage teddies were supplanted by newer models with large foreheads,  short snouts, and dominant cheeks.

“Dolls have come to emphasize or exaggerate these features,” the authors write. “Cartoon characters do likewise, and those animals most often selected as pets tend also to have them.”

Teddy Bears Improve Psychological Well-Being

Cuddling teddy bears “evokes a sense of peace, security and comfort,” psychologist Corrine Sweet said in a 2010 press release (for a Travelodge study, of all things). “It’s human nature to crave these feelings from childhood to adult life.”

One striking example of how stuffed animals satisfy our psychological needs even as adults appeared in Social Psychology and Personality Science in 2011. Researchers first psychologically damaged a group of volunteers by “socially excluding” them — in this case, by giving them negative feedback on a personality test (“You’re the type who will end up alone later in life”). Others received more generous assessments. Then, the researchers asked each participant whether he or she was willing to share money with a friend, and whether he or she would be interested in participating in future studies. Predictably, those who received negative feedback felt less charitable. They weren’t terribly interested in participating in future studies, and not particularly good about sharing money.

But there was a twist — some “socially excluded” participants were given the opportunity to touch a teddy bear before deciding whether to share money or help with future experiments. And they were significantly more likely than anyone else to engage in prosocial behaviors afterward.

“There is no urgent need for myself to have the money and it is always comforting to be pleasantly surprised by others, even if it’s from a stranger. So I just hope the money can be useful for the person who receives it,” one participant (who, recall, had been told by scientists that she’d probably die alone) gushed after time with her teddy. The authors concluded that something about cuddling with stuffed animals measurably dampens feelings of rejection.

“During situations that may be hard for people to regain social connection with others after being rejected,” the authors conclude. “One can choose to seek solace in the comfort of a teddy bear.”

When Toys Replace You And Become “Transitional Objects”

So goes the occasional teddy bear cuddle. But in some situations, children develop unique attachments to stuffed animals — some even rising to the level of transitional objects.

Donald Winnicott, who revolutionized the field of pediatric psychotherapy in the mid-1900s, coined the term “transitional object” to describe any non-imaginary item that a child chooses on his or her own, attributes special value to, and over which the child has absolute control. In an unmistakably Freudian twist, Winnicott claimed that transitional objects helped infants shift between early oral relationships with their mothers to genuine object-based relationships. Stuffed animals are among the most commonly chosen transitional objects, and scientists suspect that’s because they’re soft and well-proportioned — designed to provide comfort.

As for why small children need constant, unmoveable sources of comfort, modern research suggest Winnicott wasn’t far off the mark. Teddy bears step up when mothers are unavailable. Studies conducted throughout the ’70s and ’80s reported that cultures in which infants spend most of their time with their mothers have significantly lower rates of attachment to transitional objects. Put another way, studies suggest kids with present moms seldom cling to their teddies.

Scientists tested the theory that transitional objects fill a void for children whose mothers aren’t around in 2014, with a study involving 1,122 three-year-olds who spent either half days or full days at daycare. Kids on the full-day track were significantly more likely to tote transitional teddy bears. “Among the children who stayed at daycare only half days, rates of object attachment were only 27.3 percent,” the authors write. “For children who regularly spent full days under organized care, object attachment reached significantly higher rates of 35.6 percent.”

How A Teddy Bear Takes On A Life Of Its Own

The creepiest part about transitional teddy bears (because the fact that they can replace you isn’t creepy enough) is that kids seem to really care about their stuffed animals. Studies suggest some kids are so attached that they come to believe that their toys have unique properties or “essences”. Researchers demonstrated this in an odd 2008 study published in Cognition, which involved a scientific-looking “copy machine” that researchers told kids they could use to create an identical duplicate of any item. The machine was fake — but the existential crises were real.

When scientists moved to copy everyday objects, the kids didn’t show much interest. But when they proposed to copy that child’s special teddy bear or comfort item, the stakes became apparent. “A quarter of children refused to have their favorite object copied at all,” the authors said in a press release. And those who did copy their transitional items regretted it. “Most of those who were persuaded to put their toy in the copying machine wanted the original back.”

Why did these children care if their transitional objects were copied by a futuristic machine? What were they afraid of losing in translation? The researchers suspect that children assign a metaphysical essence to their transitional objects, in much the same way you’d (hopefully) reject a clone of your kid and demand the real one back. “Our results might arise because children believe that the favored [object]…has a hidden and invisible property — an ‘‘essence’’ — that distinguishes it from it everything else,” the authors concluded. “Children might further believe that this essence is not copied by the duplicating machine, and hence prefer the original item.”

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