Article Thumbnail

Stress — Yes, Stress — Might Be the Key to Likability

As much as anxiety can make you feel terrible internally, new research reveals that other people view it as a good kind of vulnerability

When you experience an unusually demanding day, it can be tempting to offer a disclaimer, like, “Sorry for being so stressed!” But as it turns out, you should really be apologizing for being too damn charming, because when we show how anxious we are in high-pressure situations, scientists suspect we become much less unbearable and much more likable. 

“We wanted to find out what advantages there might be in signaling stress to others, to help explain why stress behaviors have evolved in humans,” Jamie Whitehouse, co-author of a recent study on the topic, explained in a press release. To that end, Whitehouse suspected that there must be some evolutionary purpose to stress-related behaviors like biting your lip or fidgeting, beyond simply conveying weakness, because otherwise natural selection would have weeded them out by now. “If producing these behaviors 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 behaviors are likely to be selected in the evolutionary process,” he reasoned.

To test this theory, Whitehouse and his colleagues recruited 31 participants to endure a stress test in which they were told to prepare for a stressful job interview, which included a three-minute speech about why they should get the gig. After asking a series of interview questions, subjects were told to “count backwards from the number 1,022 in 13’s as fast and as accurately as you can until I ask you to stop.” Their cortisol levels were taken before and after via a saliva sample in order to gauge how much their stress levels increased. 

From there, there researchers had an additional 133 people watch videos of the 31 participants during the test and rate how stressed they appeared as well as how likable they were. The results revealed that when the 31 participants showed more “displacement behaviors,” or stress tells like playing with their hair, touching their face, scratching, yawning, fumbling over words or licking and biting their lips, they were rated as more likable overall.  

And while biting your lip might seem like a sexy move, study co-author Professor Bridget Waller believes this has more to do with cooperation than sex appeal. “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 ‘likable’ or preferred trait in a social partner,” Waller explained. 

Basically, if you’re willing to show that you’re stressed, you’re probably also willing to ask for help and help others when they need it, making you appear way more fun than those who aren’t willing to show any sign of vulnerability or weakness. 

The findings are consistent with what psychologists have referred to as the “pratfall effect,” which suggests that people in high-status positions become more winsome when they screw up because it makes them seem more normal. Overall, as uncomfortable as it is to be vulnerable, it’s probably worth showing some weakness. 

So go off and stress out. You might not like it, but at least other people will.