In a recent study, researchers took a look at the secrets behind the comforting power of teddy bears.
The study found that the combination of emotional bonds and physical features such as appearance, smell, and texture contribute to the comfort people feel when holding them.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, big and soft teddy bears were found to be the most comforting of all.
When and how did teddy bears get so cute?
At the turn of the 20th century, early teddy bears were designed to resemble their wild counterparts, with long arms and an elongated muzzle.
As an object meant to evoke attraction, affection, and attachment, the shape of the teddy bear naturally evolved over time to embody infantile characteristics, tapping into the so-called “baby schema.” This concept posits that juvenile facial features—such as a large head, round face, large forehead, and large eyes—are perceived as cute and trigger caretaking behavior by affecting attentional processes.
Empirical studies have since confirmed this. For example, mothers of cute babies show more affectionate behavior towards their offspring than mothers of less cute babies. And another found that children respond to the juvenile facial features of both humans and animals, highlighting that this preference for cuteness emerges early in development.
It’s the baby face
These findings are consistent with previous research on the positive effects of cute animals on children’s emotional development.
It’s not surprising, then, that transitional objects like teddy bears, designed to foster emotional bonds, have also adopted cuteness through juvenile facial features. Over time, teddy bear faces have evolved to deviate from the early bears, guided by owners’ preferences for more attractive characteristics.
In addition to the facial features, teddy bears also feature much softer fur than their wild counterparts, and come in a wide variety of shapes, colors, and textures, each reflecting the unique preferences of their owners.
Emotional bonds more important than physical characteristics
People with strong emotional ties to a teddy bear through special memories were found to experience a heightened sense of comfort when holding the teddy bear.
The study also showed that the physical and sensory characteristics of teddy bears can contribute to their comforting effect. For instance, teddy bears that are soft and cuddly tend to be more comforting to hold.
However, this effect was only observed when participants played with teddy bears they did not personally own. When playing with their own teddy bear, the emotional bond was found to be the more important factor.
Moreover, the study revealed the impact of appearance on the comforting effect of teddy bears: size was found to be the most important factor, with larger teddy bears being perceived as more comforting.
But other physical attributes like color, posture, or the bear’s face did not have much of an impact on how comforting it was seen to be.
How teddy bears smell and feel also matters
The study also explored the influence of scent on the comforting power of teddy bears.
This aligns with past research that has shown that smell can play a crucial role in emotional bonds, with studies showing that children can recognize their caregivers by scent, and adults choosing partners based on their odor.
The way a teddy bear feels was also found to be crucial for its comforting effect. Softness was identified as the most important factor, and cuddling or holding a teddy bear was found to provide comfort and reduce feelings of fear.
In sum: it’s a combination of emotional bonds plus the look, smell, and feel
In conclusion, the comforting power of teddy bears is a result of the combination of emotional bonds and the way they look, smell, and feel.
Future research could explore how people rank their own teddy bears based on comfort, and how children view teddy bears and assign emotions to them.
The teddy bear remains a valuable tool in psychological studies, with much potential for future investigation.
Study: “What makes a teddy bear comforting? A participatory study reveals the prevalence of sensory characteristics and emotional bonds in the perception of comforting teddy bears”
Authors: Anne-Sophie Tribot, Nathalie Blanc, Thierry Brassac, et al.
Published: January 30, 2023
Journal: The Journal of Positive Psychology
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