The secret of the comforting power of teddy bears

Scientists from the University of Montpellier, Paul Valéry University, Aix-Marseille, CNRS, IRD and the Foundation for Research on Biodiversity (FRB) have investigated the secret of the comforting power of teddy bears. Through an innovative participatory experiment involving a thousand participants aged between 3 and 72, and by studying the characteristics of hundreds of teddy bears, they have shown that emotional bonding plays a far greater role in comfort than any other characteristic. This work was published on January 30, 2023 in The Journal of Positive Psychology.

The teddy bear is a transitional object, providing comfort and security by taking the place of attachment figures, and thus helping to cope with the stress of separation. The teddy bear is the king of cuddly toys, and has occupied an important place in Western households since the early 20th century, including among adults.

A participatory study

During the 2019 Nuit des Chercheurs, a participatory study was carried out in 13 French cities to collect the photographs and characteristics of several hundred teddy bears brought by a thousand participants. Using a questionnaire, the physical, olfactory and kinaesthetic characteristics (softness, ease of handling, etc.) of the bears were measured by the participants. They were then asked to compare the comforting power of their bear with eight other teddy bears. The operation was then repeated, using another bear with which the participants had no emotional bond.

A predominantly emotional bond

Comfort scores were calculated for each bear, depending on whether it was rated by its "owner" or another person. The results showed that participants overestimated the comforting power of their bear, illustrating the strong effect of emotional bonding. In addition to this effect, the results also show a significant effect of softness, volume, being pleasant to handle and to look at. The comfort score was not related to the participants' gender or age: the perception of the comfort of a teddy bear does not therefore change over the course of a lifetime, and is not biased by a gender stereotype effect, unlike other objects linked to childhood (such as dolls or fire trucks).

Prior to this, no study had looked precisely at the characteristics taken into account when attributing this comforting power (size of teddy bear, length of hair, diameter of eyes, etc.).

" This work opens up promising avenues for studying the psychological functioning of individuals thanks to teddy bears, but above all it suggests a form of predictability of their comforting power, which could make it possible to extend the list of uses, for example, at school, in hospital, at work, during negotiations or in crisis situations," concludes Thierry Brassac, scientific mediator at the University of Montpellier.