Scientists have long tried to understand “the paradox of stress behavior:” why humans – as well as other primates – show signs of stress (fidgeting, scratching, nail-biting, touching their face or hair), which could show others that they are in a weakened state.
Now, a research team led by Nottingham Trent University (NTU) and the University of Portsmouth has found that showing signs of stress could make us more likeable and prompt other people to act more positively towards us. The study revealed that, besides being able to quickly and accurately identify when someone is stressed, people usually reacted more positively to those exhibiting more signs of stress.
The researchers filmed a group of participants while taking part in a mock presentation and interview. These videos were then presented to raters, who were asked to assess how stressed they thought the participants were. People who reported feeling more stressed during the task, as well as those who exhibited signs of stress such as nail-biting or scratching, were also perceived to be more stressed by the raters. These findings suggest that humans can accurately detect when others are stressed from their behaviors.
Interestingly, the participants who were identified to be more stressed were also perceived as more likeable by others, which may offer a clue regarding why humans have evolved to display stress signals. “We wanted to find out what advantages there might be in signaling stress to others, to help explain why stress behaviors have evolved in humans,” said study lead author Jamie Whitehouse, a research fellow in Psychology at NTU.
“If producing these behaviors leads to positive social interactions from others who want to help, rather than negative social interactions from those who want to compete with you, then these behaviors are likely to be selected in the evolutionary process. We are a highly cooperative species compared to many other animals, and this could be why behaviors which communicate weakness were able to evolve.”
“If the individuals are inducing an empathetic-like response in the raters, they may appear more likeable because of this, or it could be that an honest signal of weakness may represent an example of benign intent and/or a willingness to engage in a cooperative rather than competitive interaction, something which could be a ‘likable’ or preferred trait in a social partner,” added study senior author Bridget Waller, a professor of Evolution and Social Behavior at NTU.
“This fits with current understanding of expressivity, which tends to suggest that people who are more “emotionally expressive” are more well-liked by others and have more positive social interactions.”
The researchers are now investigating whether young children also show a similar sensitivity to stress states. In addition, they aim to clarify how exposure to adults’ stress may impact children.
The study is published in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior.