Evolution of anxiety: Humans may show signs of stress to gather support

PORTSMOUTH, United Kingdom — Science has finally uncovered the evolutionary reason why we tend to bite our nails, touch our face, or fidget when under stress. To evoke support! Scientists from the University of Portsmouth and Nottingham Trent University report that showing signs of stress may make people more likable and subtly encourage others to act more positively towards them.

Monkeys and apes display similar restless behavior when stressed out as well. So, the research team set out to investigate this instinctive paradox. According to the study, actions like scratching, nail-biting, fidgeting, and touching one’s face or hair all tell onlookers that you are in a weakened state. Advertising vulnerability isn’t exactly conducive to surviving out in the wild.

“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,” says Dr. Jamie Whitehouse, a research fellow at NTU’s School of Social Sciences, in a university release.

“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,” he continues.

People can tell when someone is feeling stress

The investigation found that people are indeed quite capable of accurately noticing when someone around them is experiencing stress. Additionally, those noticing that something was off reacted more positively towards the anxious individuals.

The team recorded each person in their experiment while they participated in a mock presentation and interview session. Importantly, they told each person to prepare these presentations on very short notice. Researchers then showed the interviews to a different group of people they called “raters.” These raters had to assess the stress level of the people in the recordings.

Sure enough, participants who admitted to feeling stress during the presentation were perceived as being more stressed out by the raters. Those who displayed more stressful behaviors like nail-biting were also rated as being more stressed.

Critically, participants who were perceived as more stressed were also considered more likable by other people. Study authors theorize this may partially explain why primates evolved to outwardly display signs of stress.

“If the individuals are inducing an empathetic-like response in the raters, they may appear more likable 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,” explains study co-author Professor Bridget Waller.

“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,” she adds.

Can kids do this too?

All in all, these results strongly suggest the average person can accurately detect when someone else is feeling anxious based on their physical behaviors.

“Our team is currently investigating whether young children also show this sensitivity to stress states. By looking at childhood we can understand how difficult it is to detect stress, as well as identifying how exposure to adults’ stress might impact young children,” concludes study co-author Dr. Sophie Milward from the University of Portsmouth.

The study is published the journal Evolution and Human Behavior.

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