Showing signs of stress could make us more likeable and prompt others to act more positively, according to a new study by scientists at Nottingham Trent University and the University of Portsmouth.
Researchers examine the paradox of stress behavior, namely why, as in other primates, humans show signs of stress – such as scratching, nail-biting, fidgeting, and touching their face or hair – which could prove to others that they are in a weakened state. General Chat Chat Lounge
They found that, as well as being able to accurately identify when someone was stressed, people reacted more positively to the individuals who showed more signs of stress.
As part of the study, participants were videoed while taking part in a mock presentation and interview in which they had to prepare with very short notice. The videos were presented to raters, who were asked to rate how stressed they thought the person was in the video.
The participants who reported feeling more stressed during the task were perceived as being more stressed by the raters. Similarly, those showing more self-directed behaviors during the task, such as scratching and nail-biting, were also perceived as more stressed. The findings suggest that people can accurately detect when others are experiencing stress from their behaviors – something which is surprisingly yet to be shown with scientific evidence.
The participants who were identified as being more stressed during the task, were also perceived as being more likeable by others, giving a clue as to why humans have evolved to display stress signals.
We are a highly cooperative species compared to many other animals, and this may be the reason why communicative weaknesses were able to evolve.
Dr Jamie Whitehouse, a research fellow at NTU’s School of Social Sciences and research lead, said: “We wanted to find out what benefits there might be in signaling stress to others, to help explain why stress behaviors have evolved in humans.
“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 may be why behaviors that were communicative weakness were able to evolve. “
Co-author Professor Bridget Waller added: “If individuals are inducing an empathetic-like response in the raters, they may appear to be more likeable because of this, or it could be an honest signal of weakness representing an example of benign expression and / or a willingness to engage in a cooperative rather than competitive interaction, something that could be a ‘likable’ or preferred trait in a social partner. 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. “
Our team is currently investigating whether young children also show this sensitivity to stress states.
Discussing the next steps, co-author Dr Sophie Milward from the University of Portsmouth added: “Our team is currently investigating whether young children also show this sensitivity to stress. By looking at childhood we can understand how difficult it is to detect stress, as well as identify how exposure to adults’ stress might have impacted young children. “
Reference: Whitehouse J, Milward SJ, Parker MO, Kavanagh E, Waller BM. Signal value of stress behavior. Evolution and Human BehaviorGeneral Chat Chat Lounge Published online May 13, 2022. doi: 10.1016 / j.evolhumbehav.2022.04.001
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