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How do signs of vulnerability encourage social bonding?

If you feel stressed and show it, it makes people like you, according to a new EU-backed study.

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Letting others see when you are stressed does not seem to be the wisest decision from an evolutionary perspective. After all, showing weakness leaves you vulnerable to attack, doesn’t it? But does showing when you are stressed actually benefit you in any way? Yes, it does, according to a new study published in the journal ‘Evolution and Human Behavior’. Supported in part by the EU-funded FACEDIFF project, the study investigated why we use our bodies, hands and facial expressions to communicate stress. Do others notice our stress-related behaviours? How do they perceive them? The researchers discovered that these behaviours are linked to our ability to form and maintain social networks. In fact, they found that the more stressed you seem, the more likeable you are to others.

Creating stress, and spotting it

To get to these answers, the research team induced stress in 31 participants around 28 years old on average to observe their behaviour. The participants had to prepare for a clinical psychologist job interview that included a 3-minute speech about why they are the ideal candidate. They then had to give the speech, answer a series of purposefully difficult job interview questions and perform a mental arithmetic task. “It won’t shock you to learn most participants became stressed,” writes study lead author Dr Jamie Whitehouse of FACEDIFF project coordinator Nottingham Trent University, United Kingdom, in an article posted on ‘The Conversation’. The team then showed videos of the stressed participants to 133 people between 35 and 45 years of age who were complete strangers to the participants. These strangers were asked to answer three questions on a sliding scale from 0 to 100. The questions were how stressed the person in the video looked, how confident they felt about their answer and, as a first impression, how much they liked this person. “It turns out, humans are quite good at recognising when someone is feeling stressed. The more stressed a person reported being, the more stressed others thought they were – a clear linear relationship,” reports Dr Whitehouse. “As expected, self-directed behaviour seems to play an important role. The more of these behaviours a person produced, the more stressed they were judged to be.” As the study supported by FACEDIFF (Individual differences in facial expressivity: Social function, facial anatomy and evolutionary origins) shows, there is a clear link between stress behaviour and stress perception. Also, the fact that the people who seemed more stressed were also considered more likeable could be the reason why humans display this type of weakness. Dr Whitehouse explains: “People’s first impressions towards ‘stress signallers’ are not negative, but in fact very positive. We expect people to take advantage of weakness but showing your vulnerable side encourages support and social bonding.” For more information, please see: FACEDIFF project web page


FACEDIFF, stress, stressed, behaviour, weakness, impression

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