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Scratch Yourself to Avoid Fights, Says Science!

S u m m a r y :
How to avoid aggression? Scratch yourself in stress, suggests a new study published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Fight, Flight, or Scratching?

When you’re stressed that a fight might erupt between people, your stress can actually help you. No, not in the usual fight-or-flight, adrenaline-fuelled way. But, if this stress causes you to scratch yourself—that is, you give off signs of being stressed—you might be paving the way to peace; it is to be noted that scratching can be an indicator of stress in primates, and in humans.

Macaque monkeys on Cayo Santiago, Puerto Rico, were observed to deduce whether stress scratching affected aggressivity. Photo credits: Jamie Whitehouse.

Scratching to Communicate Peace

Scratching might be more than just scratching. According to new research conducted by a team of investigators led by Jamie Whitehouse from the University of Portsmouth, it might have developed as a means of communication to promote social cohesion. The findings behind this conclusion show that stress-triggered scratching appears to lower aggressivity in others, thereby quelling conflicts.

Scratching Each Other’s Backs!

How does this work—how does someone scratching himself cause someone else to behave in a particular manner? Whitehouse explains that these signs of stress can generate a response in others. This suggests that scratching and related behaviours might be similar in terms of function.

“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,” says Whitehouse.

More Stress, More Scratching, Fewer Fights!

The team reached this conclusion after observing the behaviour of a group of 45 rhesus macaques on the island of Cayo Santiago, Puerto Rico. The social interactions between these animals were closely monitored for 8 months. The findings demonstrate that the likelihood of scratching was greater when the monkeys experienced high levels of stress, including situations where the monkeys were near high-ranking monkeys or non-friends.

Learn From Scratching Monkeys

Furthermore, the team noted a significant decrease in the risk of a scratching monkey being assaulted—an effect that seemed to have been brought about by the stress scratching.

The risk of aggression in the vicinity of a high-ranking monkey was at 75% when the low-ranking monkeys would not scratch themselves; in the case of scratching, the likelihood was at 50% only.

Aggression would also be less likely to happen between monkeys which did not share a strong social bond when scratching did occur.

“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,” says Whitehouse.

“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.”

This study will hopefully allow for a more in-depth understanding of stress in humans.


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