The unexpected way stress can help your social life

Posted by
Megan Murray
backgroundLayer 1
Add this article to your list of favourites

Everybody wants to make a good first impression, don’t they?

Whether we’re meeting our partner’s parents for the first time, starting a new job, or heading into that all-important interview, we tend to turn on the charm in a bid to project the best version of our selves possible – and god forbid anyone guess that we’re not quite as confident as we’re trying to appear.

But, while we’ve always been told this is a surefire way to make friends, new research has revealed that may not actually be the case.

In fact, your flaws actually can have a far more positive effect on those around you.

The study, conducted by Jamie Whitehouse from the University of Portsmouth, looks at how primates react to each other in social situations when one openly exhibits signs of stress.

With a focus on scratching, researchers watched how primates treated a member of the group when they demonstrated this scientifically-proven symptom of stress.

Instead of shunning their anxious acquaintance, the primates showed behaviour that improved the cohesion of the group and reduced the probability of conflict. And Whitehouse has surmised that showing signs of vulnerability – in this case exhibiting anxious body language – benefits both the one that is stressed and those observing them.

Speaking about his findings, he says: “Observable stress behaviours could have evolved as a way of reducing aggression in socially complex species of primates.

“Showing others you are stressed could benefit both the scratcher and those watching, because both parties can then avoid conflict.”

And it seems that monkeys have the same social anxieties as us, as most of their scratching was done when put in a situation with an unfamiliar primate – which we guess is the monkey equivalent of the first day at a new job.

When finding themselves in this type of situation, those that showed transparency lowered the rate of aggression in the group by 25%. Scientists observed that when a higher-ranking primate approached a group and no one scratched, the probability of confrontation was 75%. However, this dropped to 50% when someone scratched.

Which means that, when the monkeys noticed another member of the group was stressed that, it discouraged them from attacking. 

Whitehouse continues: “As scratching can be a sign of social stress, potential attackers might be avoiding attacking obviously stressed individuals because such individuals could behave unpredictably or be weakened by their stress, meaning an attack could be either risky or unnecessary.”

Watch: What not to say to an anxiety sufferer

According to Whitehouse, these social cues actually translate very easily to the way humans behave, too. He surmises that transparency in our actions is beneficial to our social situations, and imagines that with everyone in the group on the same page, the need for conflict becomes less.

Explaining his theory, he says: “By revealing stress to others, we are helping them predict what we might do, so the situation becomes more transparent. Transparency ultimately reduces the need for conflict, which benefits everyone and promotes a more socially cohesive group.”

We have to admit, it feels a bit of a leap to base our social skills on a bunch of scratching primates, but Whitehouse certainly has a point when it comes to being more honest about our feelings and showing a greater level of transparency in our lives.

With particular thanks to the rise of social media, we could be accused of feeling the pressure to live our best lives at all times – and making sure people know about it. There are countless studies to back up the negative feelings that we feel when projecting a fake fabulously flawless pretence, be it envy at others’ seemingly perfect lives or anxiety brought on by the fear of not having it all.

Time to make like these monkeys and get honest with those around us, we reckon.

Images: Andrei Coman / iStock


Share this article


Megan Murray

Megan Murray is a senior digital writer for, who enjoys writing about homeware (particularly candles), travel, food trends, restaurants and all the wonderful things London has to offer.