When Kaitlin Lipe was 6 months old, someone gave her a Puffalump. The stuffed pink cow is more than two decades old now, but Lipe, 24, a social media manager in New York, can't part with Puff. She gets comfort wrapping her arms around the childhood toy without all the meowing that comes from her real cat or the sassy comments she might get from her boyfriend.
"She is a reminder of my childhood, has always been a comfort to me, and is in every way a symbol for the happier times in life," Lipe told LiveScience.
Lipe isn't alone in her affection for what psychologists call a "security" or "transitional" object. These are objects that people feel a bond with, despite the fact that the relationship is, by definition, one-sided.
While nostalgia is likely part of the reason grown-ups feel attached to a particular object, there also seems to be a deeper emotional attachment to the item as well, said University of Bristol psychologist Bruce Hood. It's called "essentialism," or the idea that objects are more than just their physical properties.
The attachment is so deep that it can even extend to a photo of the beloved object, found Hood in a recent study published in the Journal of Cognition and Culture. Researchers asked people to cut up photographs of a cherished item. While the participants cut, the researchers recorded their galvanic skin response, a measure of tiny changes in sweat production on the skin. The more sweat, the more agitated the person.
The results showed that participants had a significant stress response to cutting up pictures of their treasured item compared with cutting up a picture of a valuable or neutral item. People even became distressed when researchers had them cut up a picture of their cherished item that was blurred past recognition.
In many cases, that beloved object dates back to childhood. In other studies Hood has done of people's sentimental attachments to objects, he said he's never lacked for participants. "We've had no problem finding adults, especially females, who have their child sentimental objects with them," Hood said.
While it may not be the social norm for grown-ups to lug around teddy bears, adults regularly become attached to inanimate objectsin a manner similar to a child's grip on a security blanket, researchers say.
There are no precise numbers on how many people carry a love for their childhood blankie into adulthood, but a survey of 6,000 British adults by the hotel chain Travelodge in August found that 35 percent admitted to sleeping with stuffed animals.
The survey is perhaps not the most scientific, but the phenomenon of adults with security objects is "a lot more common than people realize," Hood told LiveScience.
Those attachments likely have their roots in the very real comfort gleaned as a child from a beloved blanket or toy.
One study published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology in 2000, for example, found that kids who had their favorite blankets with them at the doctor's office experienced less distress, as measured by blood pressure and heart rate. Apparently, security blankets really do live up to their name.
Even as the need for a security object fades, the attachment may linger, as it has for Lipe. What's more, researchers found, the bond is to the exact item itself, not a new version of it and not even an precise copy. Consider: If someone offered to replace a cherished item, like your wedding ring, with an exact, indistinguishable replica, would you accept? Most people refuse, Hood said, because they believe there is something special about their particular ring. It's the same reason we might feel revulsionat wearing a shirt owned by a murderer. Objects are emotional.
Belief in essentialism starts early. In a 2007 study published in the journal Cognition, Hood and his colleagues told 3- to 6-year-old children that they could put their toys in a "copy box" that would exchange them for duplicates. The kids didn't care whether they played with originals or duplicates of most toys, but when offered the chance to duplicate their most adored item, 25 percent refused. Most of those who did agree to duplicate their beloved toy wanted the original back right away, Hood reported. The kids had an emotional connection to that blanket, or that teddy bear, not one that looked just like it.
Mine, mine, mine
Researchers know little about what's going on in the brain to bond us to certain objects. Hood is now using brain imaging to investigate what goes on when people watch videos of what looks like their cherished objects being destroyed.
However, studies on marketing and purchasing decisions suggest that our tendency to love objects goes beyond the soft and cuddly.
A 2008 study in the Journal of Judgment and Decision Making revealed that people who held onto a mug for 30 seconds before bidding for it in an auction offered an average of 83 cents more for it than people who held the mug for 10 seconds.
The effect is even greater when the item is fun to touch, said Suzanne Shu, a professor of behavioral sciences in the school of management at the University of California, Los Angeles. She's done studies finding that people get more attached to a pen with a "nice, smooshy grip" than an identical, gripless pen.
The findings seem to be an extension of what's called the "endowment effect," or people's tendency to value things more when they feel ownership over it, Shu said.
"Part of the story of what happens with touch is it almost becomes an extension of yourself," she said. "You feel like it's more a part of you, and you just have this deeper attachment to it."
Whether this touch-based attachment might relate to the love people feel for snuggly childhood teddy bears, no one yet knows. But human relationships to objects can certainly be long-running and deep.
"She's been there for me when I've been sick, when I've been lonely and when I really needed a hug and no one was around," Lipe said of her stuffed cow, citing the characters from Pixar's Toy Story movies: "She's the Woody and Buzz to my adulthood, really, a reminder of my past and definitely a connection to my family."