Signs of stress may evoke support from others, study finds


When someone is showing signs of stress, they are more apt to garner support from others, according to new research.

The study, published in the journal, Evolution and Human Behavior, was conducted by researchers at Nottingham Trent University (NTU) and the University of Portsmouth in England.

Researchers examined the ways humans exhibit stress through actions such as scratching, nail-biting, fidgeting, and touching their face or hair, which often demonstrates to onlookers that they are in a weakened state. As a result, the study’s authors found that people reacted more positively towards individuals who showed more signs of stress.

As part of the study, participants were filmed while taking part in a mock presentation and interview which they had to prepare with very short notice. The videos were presented to individuals chosen as raters, who were asked to rate the stress level of the person 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.

In addition, the participants who were identified as being more stressed during the presentation and interview were also perceived as more likeable by others, giving a clue as to 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 Jamie Whitehouse, PhD, research fellow at NTU’s School of Social Sciences and research lead. “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.”