Primates (including humans) scratch when stressed. So far, such scratching has been seen as a by-product of physiological processes associated with stress, and attributed proximate, regulatory function. However, it is possible that others could use this relationship between scratching and stress as an indication of the animal’s stress state, and thus scratching could potentially have social function. As a test of this theory, we measured the production of, and social responses to scratching in a group of free-ranging rhesus macaques (Macaca mulatta). Firstly, we found that the likelihood of scratching was greater around periods of heightened social stress, such as being in proximity to high-ranking individuals, or non-friends. Secondly, when macaques scratched, subsequent interactions were less likely to be aggressive and more likely to be affiliative. Potential attackers may avoid attacking stressed individuals as stressed individuals could behave unpredictably or be weakened by their state of stress (rendering aggression risky and/or unnecessary). Observable stress behaviour could therefore have additional adaptive value by reducing the potential for escalated aggression, benefiting both senders and receivers by facilitating social cohesion. This basic ability to recognise stress in others could also be an important component in the evolution of social cognition such as empathy.