Looking stressed helps social cohesion, finds study

Scratching might be your pathway to pacifism

Olivia Petter
Monday 11 September 2017 14:15

Got an itch? Scratching it might prevent you from getting into an argument, new research has found.

A scientifically-proven symptom of stress, seeing others scratch themselves may reduce aggression and lessen the possibility of conflict.

The study, conducted by Jamie Whitehouse from the University of Portsmouth, was carried out on primates and showed that social cohesion could be a benefit of appearing stressed by scratching.

However, Whitehouse believes that these results can be applied to humans too.

"Observable stress behaviours could have evolved as a way of reducing aggression in socially complex species of primates,” explained Whitehouse.

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

The research team monitored the behaviour of a group of rhesus macaques in Puerto Rico for eight months and found that the monkeys were more likely to scratch themselves during times of heightened stress i.e. being in close proximity to monkeys they weren’t familiar with.

“Stress scratching” substantially reduced the monkey’s risks of being attacked, the scientists found.

The rate of aggression when a higher ranking primate approached a lower ranking one was 75 per cent if no scratching occurred and 50 per cent if the lower ranking monkey had scratched itself.

"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,” Whitehouse said.

"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."

Whitehouse’s findings make sense, given that keeping things bottled up often leads to greater confrontations down the line.

The straw always breaks the camel’s back for a reason – and that reason might be letting failing to acknowledge that you have an itch that needs to be scratched.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments