Signal value of stress behaviour

Jamie Whitehouse*, Sophie Jane Milward, Matt Parker, Eithne Kavanagh, Bridget Waller

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

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Physiological and psychological stress are accompanied by nonverbal behaviour across a wide range of species. The function of this ‘stress behaviour’ is not well understood but is often assumed to be read by others as a cue to stress. Displaying signs of weakness is, however, difficult to understand from an evolutionary perspective and therefore further investigation into why these behaviours exist is needed. Here, we test whether displacement behaviours (i.e., those known to be associated with stress) are reliable indicators of stress in humans. To do this, we presented raters (n=133) with videos of individuals (n=31) undergoing a stress-inducting task. Self-directed displacement behaviours and self-reported stress were both associated with stress ratings given by raters. Therefore, such behaviours can provide reliable information to others and can be considered communicative. Individuals producing more nonverbal stress behaviour were rated as more likeable by raters (perhaps presenting as more honest signallers), indicating a benefit and potential adaptive function of displaying stress. Raters also differed in their accuracy in detecting stress from nonverbal cues. Findings suggest that the accuracy with which individuals were able to detect stress was linked to the number of social connections they reported to have. However, this association was non-linear, with individuals who were most and least accurate reporting the least network connections. This could indicate that the ability to read behaviour is associated with an ability to form and maintain social networks.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)325-333
JournalEvolution and Human Behavior
Issue number4
Early online date4 Jun 2022
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jul 2022


  • stress
  • individual differences
  • displacement behaviour
  • facial expressivity


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