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Manifesting Signs of Stress May Just Make You More Likeable As a Person

A cue to embrace your emotionally intelligent, vulnerable side more often. 

Did you know that stress—the bane of our existence—may have been benefitting you all this while? According to researchers at Nottingham Trent University and the University of Portsmouth, exhibiting signs of stress could potentially make us more likeable as people, prompting others to behave positively towards us. And, while this likability may be associated with the virtue of being honest about one's feelings, an evolutionary aspect comes into question as well. 

As per the research published in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior, scientists observed how humans react to stress via the display of common stress behaviours such as nail-biting, fidgeting, scratching the head, and touching the face and hair. By introducing the participants of the experimental group to a mildly stressful situation—involving them having to prepare for a presentation, a job interview, and a maths test—their stress response was video recorded and shown to other participants. 

The participants in the control group were quick to identify stress indicators and seemed to draw a direct correlation between higher levels of stress with higher likability as a person. Contradicting the notion of concealing and keeping one's 'weaker' emotions under the wraps, it is believed as though, exhibiting raw, real vulnerability garnered the support and empathy of the control group participants. Turning to a scientifically-rooted explanation, when challenged with stress, people tend to engage in self-directed behaviour which includes fumbling and fidgeting. "Very similar forms of stress behaviour are well documented in monkeys and apes, which adds to the evidence they emerged over evolutionary time from a common ancestor. We are a highly cooperative species, more so than any other animal, and we are attracted to those who are honest about their intentions and state of mind. There is nothing more honest than communicating when you are weak," wrote Jamie Whitehouse, a co-author of the study.

"We wanted to find out what advantages there might be in signalling stress to others, to help explain why stress behaviours have evolved in humans. If producing these behaviours 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 behaviours 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 behaviours which communicate weakness were able to evolve," he added. 

Co-author Professor Bridget Waller said, "If the individuals are inducing an empathetic-like response in the raters, they may appear more likeable 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 ‘likeable’ or preferred trait in a social partner. This fits with the 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."

Co-author Dr Sophie Milward, from the University of Portsmouth, concluded, "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."