Feeling socially excluded? Try touching a teddy bear (seriously)

Feeling as though we belong is important for our mental and physical wellbeing. Social exclusion hurts and it darkens our mood. Unfortunately, this sets up a vicious circle because we're then less likely to engage in friendly, prosocial acts, and so less likely to form new bonds with others. A new study documents an effective way to break this cycle - excluded people should touch a teddy bear. Seriously.

Across two studies Kenneth Tai and his colleagues prompted some of their participants to feel socially excluded, either by giving them false feedback on a personality questionnaire ("You're the type who will end up alone later in life") or by contriving an uncomfortable situation in a group task with other participants ("I hate to tell you this, but no one chose you as someone they wanted to work with"). Other participants were given more heartening feedback (e.g. lots of people chose you to be in their group) and acted as a comparison.

Next, all the participants had to rate a "consumer product" - a 80cm, furry teddy bear. Some of the participants were given the teddy bear to hold; others evaluated him from a distance.

The researchers were interested in how being socially excluded would influence the participants' willingness to volunteer for more experiments in the future, and their willingness to share money with another person in an economic game (both taken to be signs of pro-social behaviour). And most of all, the researchers wanted to know if touching a teddy first would make any difference to these behaviours.

It did. Socially excluded participants who had the chance to touch the teddy bear were more likely to volunteer for future experiments and they shared money more generously with another participant. By contrast, touching the teddy made no difference to the behaviour of participants who weren't socially excluded.

Touching a teddy increased the prosocial behaviour of excluded participants by increasing their experience of positive emotion. The researchers tested this by asking participants to explain their decision about sharing money in the economic game. Excluded participants who touched the teddy were more likely to give answers like this one, featuring mentions of positive emotions: "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."

Why on earth would touching a teddy bear have these effects on grown adults? Part of it could have to do with the links between emotional and physical warmth. Past research has shown that socially excluded people rated a room's temperature as colder, and people who feel more lonely tend to take more hot baths. There are also obvious links with past research showing the emotional and physical benefits of contact with pets. Finally, it could also be to do with people anthropomorphising the teddy (i.e. seeing it as human). Touch from another human can boost oxytocin levels - a hormone involved in feelings of trust and social closeness - perhaps touching the teddy had a similar effect.

Tai and his colleagues said there are lots of avenues for future research to explore - would touching a soft blanket have the same benefits observed in this study, or what about touching a plastic teddy? Would the results be replicated in a culture that tends not to anthropomorphise teddies?

"Often times, it may be hard to renew affiliative bonds with other people when one has been socially excluded by others," the researchers concluded. "During situations that may be hard for people to regain social connection with others after being rejected, one can choose to seek solace in the comfort of a teddy bear."

ResearchBlogging.orgTai, K., Zheng, X., and Narayanan, J. (2011). Touching a Teddy Bear Mitigates Negative Effects of Social Exclusion to Increase Prosocial Behavior. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2 (6), 618-626 DOI: 10.1177/1948550611404707

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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