(For the story behind my stuffed red dragon, Blip, see chapter 1 of my book.)
Humans rely on other people in nearly every realm of life, from being raised, to obtaining food, to fending off rivals, to producing our own children, to being cared for in old age. And so we’ve developed a fundamental emotional need to belong. We find comfort in mere companionship and often seek it when isolated.
Nicholas Epley and collaborators have shown that loneliness leads us to anthropomorphize—to attribute human qualities where they don’t belong, which is a form of magical thinking (see chapter 6). For example, after watching a clip of Cast Away, people thought of their pets as more thoughtful, considerate, and sympathetic. And people who reported more frequently feeling isolated gave various gadgets (including Clocky, an alarm clock on wheels that runs away) higher ratings on scales of free will and consciousness.
But does such anthropomorphism actually quench our thirst for connection, the way real human contact does? Does it make us happier? Well, anyone with a dog will tell you yes, and research shows that being around pets can reduce stress. But can something even less human, such as a teddy bear, do the trick? That’s where the new research comes in.
Kenneth Tai, Xue Zheng, and Jayanth Narayanan at the National University of Singapore ran subjects in groups of four and asked them to pick two of the other three to work with. Subjects received false feedback telling them either everyone had picked them or no one had picked them. Later they were asked to rate a consumer product—a teddy bear. Half of them were asked to hold the bear while evaluating it. Among the socially excluded subjects, those who touched the bear expressed more positive emotions at the end of the experiment than those who didn’t—about as many as both groups of socially included subjects.
Further, when given $10 and asked if they wanted to donate some anonymously to another subject, the excluded subjects gave more money if they had touched the bear. Their increased prosociality resulted from their better moods. (The experimenters did not, however, test the effects of bears deformed by evil.)
Given that isolation increases stress and cortisol production, and that petting dogs reduces blood pressure, the researchers suggest that touching a teddy bear might make you not just happier and nicer but healthier too. One more win for magical thinking.
Note, however, that even though your stuffed animals are probably better behaved and easier to clean up after than your friends, it’s probably a good idea to keep a few real people around. After all, you’ll need someone on your side when the bears rise up to conquer us all.