Appearing stressed out could have one paradoxical effect on others

Humans behave in strange ways. It’s easy to let our inner feelings out in times of weakness, which just doesn’t seem like the smart thing to do.

By simply observing someone’s behavior, we can tell when they are in pain, frustration, or discomfort. Surely the best strategy is to try to hide the weakness? Why risk being taken advantage of?

Many other animals rarely exhibit visible behavioral changes when they are in trouble. Veterinarians and animal caretakers must rely on signs such as changes in blood pressure, heart rate or hormone levels for pain or stress. But could there be an advantage to detecting your security holes?

Our study (funded by the ERC) investigates why we communicate with our bodies, faces and hands. We’ve found these signals play an important role in how we build and maintain social networks. Specifically, our testing shows that the more stressed you are, the more likeable others find you.

Evolution and stress

We have long understood that stress experience and behavior are linked. When someone is stressed, they are more likely to exhibit what we call self-directed behavior. We touch our faces, bite our nails, touch things and play with our hair. Very similar patterns of stress behavior have also been observed in monkeys and apes, which adds to the evidence that they emerged over evolutionary time from a common ancestor.

However, how others view these stress-related behaviors remains a mystery to researchers. Do people even notice these behaviors in other people? Can we detect when others are feeling stressed? How does that change our impression of them?

To investigate, we needed to induce mild stress in volunteers to study their behavior. They have three minutes to prepare for their presentation and job interview, followed by a challenging math test.

You won’t be shocked to learn that most of the participants become stressed.

We showed video of these stressed volunteers to a new group of people, who rated their behavior on a sliding scale such as “How stressed is this person?” The results tell us what people look like when they’re stressed and what people think of them.

As it turns out, humans are pretty good at recognizing when someone is feeling stressed. One person reported that the more stressed they were, the more stressed the other thought they were – a clearly linear relationship. As expected, self-directed behavior seems to play an important role. The more a person induces these behaviors, the more stressed they are judged to be.

It’s also important to note that these are not subtle signals that only close friends can detect, as we asked complete strangers to rate our participants.

New discovery – The fact that other people can clearly detect when we are stressed is evidence that these behaviors work like other types of nonverbal communication (such as facial expressions and gestures) – a fact that has not been supported. household so far. This is the first study to find a provable link between stressful behavior and perception of stress.

The fact that people rated as more stressed were also considered the most likable might explain why we produce these signs of weakness in the first place (and why they develop). People’s first impressions of the “stress sign person” are not negative, but in fact very positive. We expect people to take advantage of weaknesses, but showing your vulnerable side encourages social support and cohesion.

We are a more cooperative species than any other animal, and we are attracted to people who are honest about their intentions and state of mind. There is nothing more honest than communicating when you are weak.

Other research shows that stress can be a good thing and should be accepted. Our brains evolved to deal with environmental challenges, and mild stress provides a healthy challenge to keep your mind stimulated.

Stressful communication is telling a similar story. Express your feelings, good or bad. Don’t try too hard to hide your stress levels during that big presentation or interview. Communicating honestly and naturally through your behavior can actually leave a positive impression on others.

This article was originally published on Conversation by Jamie Whitehouse at Nottingham Trent University. Read the original text here. Appearing stressed out could have one paradoxical effect on others

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