In a new study published in Evolution and human behavior, the researchers found that people who displayed more nonverbal stressful behaviors were rated as more likable. People who had more social connections were more accurate in detecting stress in others.
Across species, organisms show signs of stress that can be detected by others. From an evolutionary perspective, little is known about the adaptive advantage of displaying signs of stress. Stress behaviors, also known as travel behaviors, include self-grooming, face touching, head scratching, and fidgeting with objects, all of which can help someone regulate their stress. Researchers Jamie Whitehouse and his colleagues were interested in determining whether travel behaviors are reliable indicators of stress in humans.
“We wanted to know what benefits there might be to reporting stress to others, to help explain why stress behaviors have evolved in humans,” Whitehouse explained in a press release.
“If producing these behaviors leads to positive social interactions from other people 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 very cooperative species compared to many other animals, and this could be the reason why behaviors that communicate weakness were able to evolve.
For their study, Whitehouse and colleagues recruited 31 participants who answered pre-task questionnaires, provided saliva samples, participated in a stress-inducing task (the Trier-Social Stress Test), gave a post- task and completed a post-task questionnaire. More than 100 other participants were recruited to act as evaluators. These participants completed the Social Network Index questionnaire to assess social connection and the Berkley Expressiveness Questionnaire to assess emotional expressiveness. These participants also watched 10 stimulus videos to estimate how stressed the individuals were and rated how much they liked the person.
The results of this study show that self-reported stress was positively associated with raters’ ratings of their stress. Stress ratings were positively correlated with the proportion of moving behaviors but negatively associated with the proportion and duration of submissive behaviors. People who performed more travel behaviors were rated as more likable. Saliva sample cortisol levels were not associated with self-reported stress, mean stress scores, or any other measure.
Commuting behaviors appear to influence the relationship between self-reported stress and mean stress scores. There was little difference in travel behaviors and assessment between men and women; however, the actresses were deemed slightly more likable.
Whitehouse and colleagues said these results provide evidence that stress (displacement) behaviors influence a person’s perception of likability. Their findings also show that a person’s ability to accurately gauge others’ stress levels predicts the size of their social network. People who made more errors in assessing stress levels generally had a smaller social network and those who made fewer errors had larger social networks. However, the most accurate raters reported having fewer social ties. Whitehouse and his colleagues have argued that being too specific in reading others’ motivations may not be a desirable characteristic in a social partner.
Based on their findings, Whitehouse and colleagues noted that there are specific stress behaviors that raters used to determine the other person’s stress level, but the specific behaviors could not be determined. This study also shows that travel behaviors are a way of communicating stress to others; however, the exact information being released is unknown.
Whitehouse and colleagues stated that travel behaviors could be adaptive by allowing others to anticipate their future behavior or signal to others that their behavior is unpredictable, since stress-related behaviors are linked to risky behaviors. Individuals who displayed less travel behaviors may have been judged to be less stressed because raters perceived they had more established relationships. Those who were more stressed may have been judged more sympathetic because they are seen as more cooperative and as potential social partners.
“If individuals induce an empathetic-like response in raters, they may seem more sympathetic because of it, or it may be that an honest signal of weakness may represent an example of benign intent and/or willingness to s ‘engaging in a cooperative rather than competitive interaction, something that might be a ‘sympathetic’ or preferred trait in a social partner,” co-author Bridget Waller said in a press release. “This aligns with current understanding expressiveness, 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.
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