Nail biters, hair twirlers, item fidgeters, lip biters, to shoulder shifters. Most of us exhibit some form of physical cue or outlet when we experience stress. Some of us may even exhibit behaviours linked to superstition when avoiding certain unfavourable outcomes. The fact is, many of us have probably been told by someone to control such behaviours as it might make us “look weird” or “less confident”, especially in times when it “counts”, like at a sports team trial, job interview, presentation or first date.
I have been on both ends of the stick when it comes to these visual stress cues, as a kid and mother. It wasn’t until I recently read a study about such stress-induced behaviours or “quirks” that they may not be so bad after all, especially if you’re aware of them and they are not causing bodily harm.
In some cases, physical stress cues have even been shown to give you an advantage. I’m still on the fence about that. However, here’s what the study found to give some context and perhaps spark some sympathy in all of us the next time we spot a nail-biter.
Fidgeting freelancers, no need to panic
Freelancers, given the number of different projects, clients and intermittent finances they need to juggle could experience more stress than their salaried counterparts. And as a result, the experience of stress could more often than not be paired with visual cues, according to a Troisi study in 1999. These include “self-directed behaviours” such as scratching, face touching and lip-biting (Troisi, 2002) as well as some stress-specific facial movements (Giannakakis et al., 2017; Mayo & Heilig, 2019).
However, science has somewhat neglected questions concerning why these behaviours evolved and what adaptive benefits they could provide to a stressed individual and those around them (Tinbergen, 1952). The reasoning behind why stress behaviours actually exist remains a mystery according to a new study, Signal value of stress behaviour.
The study points out that producing behaviours so strongly associated with stress could provide opportunities for an individual to be taken advantage of by others and an adaptive strategy should be to conceal stress and other weakened states. But at least for stress, this does not seem to be the case, said the report.
“This could reflect the cooperative nature of humans (Tomasello, 2010) and that this risk of competition from others simply does not exist,” said the report.
Or, it could be that the benefits gained from displaying stress to others outweigh the risks of competition, such as providing key opportunities to elicit empathy and help from others (Dezecache, Jacob, & Grèzes, 2015); social benefits which could act as a strong selection pressure.
Championing your stress and quirks
According to the researchers, individuals producing more nonverbal stress behaviour were rated as more likeable by raters (perhaps presenting as more honest signallers), indicating a benefit and potential adaptive function of displaying stress. Tennis star Rafael Nadal is famous for his quirks and it hasn’t hurt.
Raters also differed in their accuracy in detecting stress from nonverbal cues. Findings suggest that the accuracy with which individuals were able to detect stress was linked to the number of social connections they reported to have.
However, this association was non-linear, with individuals who were most and least accurate reporting the least network connections. This could indicate that the ability to read behaviour is associated with an ability to form and maintain social networks.
Stress and the function of friendship
It is thought that we should seek out friendships that are good investments, where the benefits received from the friendship outweigh the cost of the resources and effort spent to maintain it. As a consequence, behaviours which signal our trustworthiness and reliability should therefore be selected as adaptations during evolution, as well as those which honestly communicate the signallers’ needs (as this makes it easier for others to invest efficiently, Delton & Robertson, 2012).
The Signal value of stress behaviour report stated:
“Such a framework could also help to explain the interplay between stress behaviour, submissive behaviour, and rated stress. Those appearing more stressed in this study also behaved less submissively (i.e., produced less submission-associated behaviours).
“It is possible that those less submissive individuals (or, those individuals who are more dominant) may be expected to have a higher social status, and thus, they may represent a more valuable social connection.”
To read the report in full by Jamie Whitehouse, Sophie J. Milward, Matthew O. Parker, Eithne Kavanagh, Bridget M. Waller, please go here: The signal value of stress behaviour