The fascinating reason you fidget all the time

New research suggests that showing your stress could be an evolutionary strategy.

Handsome man wearing make up wearing fashion clothes looking stressed and nervous with hands on mout...
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I’ve always found the cultural pressure to “fake it ‘til you feel it” kind of sus. If I’m not feeling super confident, acting like I do just makes me feel fraudulent on top of feeling nervous and that is a really uncomfortable emotional cocktail. Now, new research shows that, while we might feel some cultural pressure to put on a brave face, humans may have evolved to show their stress for very good reasons — to get support.

The study, which was published on Friday in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior, conducted a social experiment using 164 volunteers in the U.K.. Thirty-one participants were assigned the roles of people who had to complete a stress-inducing task — giving a presentation on short notice — and 133 participants were asked to observe the presentations of the volunteers and rate them according to how nervous they seemed to be. The researchers found that the participant observers were really skillful at picking up on small signs of nervousness, like fidgeting, nail biting, and fiddling with their hair. But what’s really amazing is that the observers didn’t judge the more nervous mock presenters as anxious or incompetent, which is how many of us fear we’ll be seen if we show our nerves. Instead, they actually found people who showed more obvious signs of stress to be more likable.

The researchers involved in the study suggest in their finding that, instead of being seen as weakness, showing signs of stress may be a way we evolved in order to get the support of other 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,” Jamie Whitehouse, research fellow at Nottingham Trent University’s School of Social Sciences and lead author of the study, told EurekAlert.

In other words, our nervous tics may not be something to be ashamed of. They may even help us get support. “We are a highly cooperative species compared to many other animals, and this could be why behaviours which communicate weakness were able to evolve,” Whitehouse told EurekAlert. Some of us — me — fear seeming “needy” and scaring people away when we’re anxious. But according to this study, when humans see other people who seem like they need comfort, they don’t feel repelled by it, they feel empathy.

We’re often told terrible things like, “only the strong survive,” but the researchers explained that showing our vulnerability may be part of what has allowed us to survive as a species. “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 ‘likable’ or preferred trait in a social partner,” Bridget Waller, a professor of psychology at NTU and co-author of the study, told EurekAlert. In other words, showing the world your full self in all your nervous nail-biting, split end twirling glory may actually help you make friends.