Showing you’re stressed can make you more likable – new research

Humans behave strangely. We easily reveal our inner feelings during moments of weakness, which doesn’t seem like the smart thing to do.

Just by observing a person’s behavior, we can tell when they are hurting, frustrated or upset. Surely the best strategy is to try to hide the weakness? Why run the risk of being exploited?

Many other animals rarely show noticeable behavioral changes when struggling. Veterinarians and caregivers must rely on clues such as changes in blood pressure, heart rate, or hormone levels to get an idea of ​​pain or stress. But could there be a benefit to broadcasting your vulnerability?

Our research (funded by the ERC) investigates why we communicate using our body, face and hands. We have found that these signals play a key role in how we build and maintain social networks. Specifically, our experience has shown that the more stressed you seem, the more likeable others find you.

Evolution and stress

We have long understood that the experience of stress and behavior are linked. When a person is stressed, they are more likely to display what we call self-directed behavior. We touch our face, we bite our nails, we fumble with objects and play with our hair. Very similar forms of stress behavior are well documented in apes and apes, adding to the evidence that they emerged during evolution from a common ancestor.

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

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

It will not shock you to learn that most participants became stressed.

We showed images of these stressed volunteers to a new group of people, who rated their behavior on sliding scales such as “How stressed is this person?” The results told us what people looked like when they were stressed and what people thought of them.

It turns out humans are pretty good at recognizing when someone is feeling stressed. The more one person reported being stressed, the more others thought they were – a clear linear relationship. As expected, self-directed behavior seems to play an important role. The more a person exhibited these behaviors, the more stressed they were judged to be.

It should also be noted that these were not subtle cues detectable only by close friends, as we asked complete strangers to make judgments about our participants.

New discoveries

The fact that other people can so clearly detect when we’re stressed is proof that these behaviors work like other types of non-verbal communication (like facial expressions, gestures) – a fact that hasn’t been taken for granted. supported so far. This is the first study that has found a demonstrable link between stressful behavior and perceived stress.

Portrait of concentrated young professional sitting in modern cafe.
Humans display clear signals when under stress.

The fact that people rated as the most stressed are also rated as the most likeable people could explain why we produce these signals of weakness in the first place (and why they have evolved). People’s first impressions of “stress flaggers” are not negative, but actually very positive. We expect people to take advantage of weakness, but showing your vulnerable side encourages support and social connection.

We are a very cooperative species, more so than any other animal, and we are drawn to those who are honest about their intentions and mindset. There’s nothing more honest than communicating when you’re weak.

Other research shows that stress can be a good thing and should be embraced. Our brains have evolved to meet the challenges of the environment, and mild stress is a healthy challenge to keep your mind stimulated.

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

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