In a new study published in Evolution and Human Behavior, researchers found that people who exhibited more nonverbal stressful behaviors were rated as more sympathetic. People who had more social relationships were more accurate in detecting stress in others.
Among species, organisms show signs of stress that can be detected by others. From an evolutionary perspective, little is known about the adaptive advantage of showing signs of stress. Stressful behaviors, also known as displacement behaviors, include self-care, face-touching, head-scratching, and anxiety with objects, all of which can help someone regulate their stress. Researchers Jamie Whitehouse and colleagues were interested in researching whether movement behaviors are reliable indicators of stress in humans.
“We wanted to find out what the benefits could be of signaling stress to others, to help explain why stressful behaviors have evolved in humans,” Whitehouse explained in a press 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 chosen in the evolutionary process. We are a very cooperative species compared to many other animals, and this could be why behaviors that communicate weakness could evolve. “
For their study, Whitehouse and colleagues recruited 31 participants who responded to pre-task questionnaires, provided saliva samples, participated in a stress-inducing task (the Trier Social Stress Test), gave a post-task saliva sample, and filled out. post-task questionnaire. More than 100 other participants were recruited to serve as evaluators. These participants filled out the Social Network Index questionnaire to assess social connection and the Berkleyan expressive ability to assess emotional expressive ability. These participants also watched 10 stimulus videos to assess how stressed individuals were and assessed how much they liked the person.
Results from this study show that self-reported stress was positively associated with the assessors ’assessment of their stress. The estimates of stress were positively correlated with the proportion of behavioral behaviors but negatively associated with the proportion and duration of submissive behaviors. People who performed more movement behaviors were rated as more sympathetic. Cortisol levels of the saliva samples were not associated with self-reported stress, mean stress ratings, or any other measures.
Movement behaviors appear to mediate the relationship between self-reported stress and mean stress ratings. There was little difference in displacement behaviors and assessment between males and females; however, female actors were rated as slightly more sympathetic.
Whitehouse and colleagues said these findings demonstrate that stress (movement) behaviors affect the perception of how sympathetic a person is. Their results also show that one’s ability to accurately assess another’s level of stress predicted the size of their social network. People who made more mistakes in assessing stress levels usually had a smaller social network and those who made fewer mistakes had larger social networks. However, assessors who were most accurate reported having fewer social relationships. Whitehouse and colleagues argued that being too accurate in reading the motivations of others may not be a desirable feature in a social partner.
Based on their findings, Whitehouse and colleagues noted that there were specific stress behaviors that evaluators used to determine the other person’s stress level, but the specific behaviors could not be determined. This study also shows that movement behaviors are a means of communicating stress to others; however, the exact information that is being communicated is unknown.
Whitehouse and colleagues said moving behaviors could be adaptive by allowing others to anticipate their future behavior or signal to others that their behavior is unpredictable because stress-related behaviors are related to risky behaviors. Individuals who showed less displacement behaviors may have been rated as less stressed because the evaluators perceived that they had more established relationships. Those who were more stressed may have been rated as more sympathetic because they are perceived as more cooperative and are potential social partners.
“If individuals induce an empathetic response from evaluators, they may seem more sympathetic to it, or it could be that an honest sign of weakness may be an example of kind intent and / or a willingness to engage in collaborative rather than competitive interaction, which could be” a likeable “or preferred trait in a social partner,” co-author Bridget Waller said in a press release. “This is consistent with a current understanding of expressive ability, which tends to suggest that people who are more ’emotionally expressive’ are more liked by others and have more positive social interactions.”
The study, “Signal value of stress behavior“, was written by Jamie Whitehouse, Sophie J. Milward, Matthew O. Parker, Eithne Kavanagh, and Bridget M. Waller.