An Anxious Moment Makes People Clean Obsessively

By Elizabeth Preston | July 24, 2015 11:26 am

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Whether you’re a person biting her nails during a phone interview or a polar bear pacing its cage, anxious animals often do the same thing over and over. Extreme cases of repetitive behavior show up in people with obsessive-compulsive disorder or autism. Now researchers have shown that even a simple, anxiety-inducing experiment can make an average person act in a repetitive and ritualized way.

“A lot of social theorists have talked about the link between anxiety and ritualization,” says Martin Lang, a graduate student at the University of Connecticut. However, “There were, to our knowledge, no experimental studies with humans that clearly demonstrated this link.” So Lang and his coauthors turned to psychology’s most popular subjects: university students. And to inspire dread in those students, the researchers used a popular fear: public speaking.

The subjects were 62 students from Masaryk University in the Czech Republic, male and female, with an average age of just under 24. When they arrived for the study, they were fitted with a heart-rate monitor and an accelerometer on each wrist. Then they sat at a table that held a decorative metal object. Half of the subjects were told they’d have to give a five-minute speech about this object to an art expert. There was a list of seven questions they’d need to answer in their talks, such as “How old do you think the object is?” and “What art genre does this object belong to?”

And, oh yeah, they had three minutes to prepare.

The other half of the subjects were asked to look at the same object and think about the same list of questions. But there was no threat of public speaking.

At the end of the task, researchers asked everyone to pick up the object and polish it with a wet cloth until they thought it was clean. Then the public-speaking subjects learned that they wouldn’t have to present after all (the “art expert” was temporarily unavailable, i.e. imaginary), and everyone filled out a questionnaire.

People who’d been preparing for a presentation said they felt more anxious, and the heart-rate monitors showed that their pulses had quickened. Thanks to the accelerometers subjects wore on their wrists, researchers could also measure the movements they’d made while cleaning the metal object. And they saw differences between the anxious subjects and the others.

Because of the object’s size and shape, Lang says, there were various ways you might clean it. You could cover the whole thing, or you could go back and forth over a small spot. Subjects who weren’t anxious varied their movements. They might alternate between short and long swipes, for example. But anxious subjects were more repetitive and predictable in their motions. “On the whole,” Lang says, anxious people “focused on smaller areas of the object and cleaned them more meticulously.”

Not that these subjects realized what they were doing. Some didn’t even acknowledge feeling anxious. To Lang’s surprise, he says, the threat of public speaking triggered these repetitive behaviors “even when participants did not consciously perceive the situation as stressful.”

This might suggest that acting repetitively when we’re stressed is a “deeply ingrained” pattern, Lang says. “If ritualization is a natural response to anxiety, then we might be able to develop effective techniques to help people deal with chronic and acute stress.” Learning more about this link might also help researchers understand why people with OCD and autism spectrum disorders have compulsive, ritualized behaviors, and how to treat them.

And if none of that pans out, at least someone’s metal circle decoration is really, really clean now.

Screen Shot 2015-07-24 at 11.57.08 AM

Images: top by bark (via Flickr); bottom, Lang et al.

Lang M, Krátký J, Shaver JH, Jerotijević D, & Xygalatas D (2015). Effects of Anxiety on Spontaneous Ritualized Behavior. Current biology : CB, 25 (14), 1892-7 PMID: 26096971

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  • Marcia Higgins

    I have been suffering from anxiety and panic
    attacks since high school, during those years I have also developed social
    anxiety and even talking to people triggers panic attacks! This is pretty
    accurate…or used to be. I’ve become better through using natural methods. I
    picked up the panic away program ( info here: http://doiop.com/asgreas ) and
    haven’t looked back. Some days are better than other and some days are worse.
    But I’m glad I turned away from trusting in medicinal crap that wasn’t really
    effective and was only temporary anyway. The natural ways are tougher…but
    they are better.

  • OWilson

    Interesting!

    I was always self employed, but I found myself “between gigs” for an extended period, and I’d never experienced that before. I was stressed.

    I was living alone at the time, and boy, was my place spotless, and everything was in it’s place.

    Thanks for explaining that!

  • http://www.ocdtalk.wordpress.com/ Janet Singer

    Interesting study. In those who actually have obsessive-compulsive disorder, it is difficult to stop the compulsions (such as cleaning) because it is never “enough.” The good thing about OCD, however, is that it is treatable! My son had OCD so severe he could not even eat and today he is a young man living life to the fullest. I talk about anything and everything to do with the disorder on my blog at http://www.ocdtalk.wordpress.com and recount my family’s story in my book Overcoming OCD: A Journey to Recovery. There truly is hope for all those who suffer from this insidious disorder.

    • OWilson

      It’s a matter of degree unfortunately.

      My own episode lasted for about 6 months and went away as soon as my new project started. Then the dishes piled up again. :)

  • Carissa

    I found this to be a very interesting read. Being someone that has a very big fear of public speaking, I was interested to find out that being anxious for any reason can evoke the same rituals. This then leads me to wonder what kind of treatment could help to break these anxious rituals? Perhaps the use of psychoanalysis, or the process of bringing unconscious thoughts into the conscious mind, might be of use in helping clients to understand where their fear comes from. I know in my experience that I often find myself wondering why am I so nervous about such and such situation anyway? Another possible avenue of therapy might be behavior therapy in which anxious behaviors that are learned can be gradually unlearned. This method uses reinforcement to change a particular behavior or habit. For example, if someone has a fear of public speaking the therapist might reinforce a change in anxiety by giving the fearful person positive reinforcement after speaking publicly. This could be praise or other incentives such as an activity that the person enjoys.

  • Emilie

    I think that this article is very interesting and the experiments prove very valid points. I thought it was most interesting how it showed how an anxiety inducing experiment can make even an average person act in a repetitive type of was that is ritualized. This shows how the brain can cause people to act in different ways due to stress,fear,happiness, and anxiety.I think that psychology has a lot to do with this experiment and that it is the cause of peoples brains making them do repetitive types of behavior when they get anxious. This behavior of repetition that the individual in this experiment has during tikes of anxiety or anxiousness has most likely been conditions to them during the years and now its become sort of a compulsion.

    • mary.peters13

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Inkfish

Like the wily and many-armed cephalopod, Inkfish reaches into the far corners of science news and brings you back surprises (and the occasional sea creature). The ink is virtual but the research is real.

About Elizabeth Preston

Elizabeth Preston is a science writer whose articles have appeared in publications including Slate, Nautilus, and National Geographic. She's also the former editor of the children's science magazine Muse, where she still writes in the voice of a know-it-all bovine. She lives in Massachusetts. Read more and see her other writing here.

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