The Reason You Bite Your Nails

Nail biting

If you can’t quite figure out why you’ve never kicked your nail-biting or hair-twirling habit, scientists have discovered a reason, linked to our personalities, that explains we develop these fidgety addictions. In short? We’re perfectionists. Not to be confused with being perfect, perfectionism is more of a hindrance than something to boast about; we’re incredibly hard on ourselves, even the best is never good enough and our perfectionist behaviours may even contribute to our collective anxiety. We get bored easily and we’re often frustrated.

It makes sense: we develop these body-focused compulsive habits because on one level, we want to nibble our nails away to perfection or twirl our hair ’til every fly-away strand is settled, and on a more subconscious level, we do these things when we’re not content with whatever it is we’re doing. At the root of all of our habits, from touching our face to OCD levels of tidiness, is perfectionism. Scientists from the University of Montreal published this interesting study in the most recent issue of the Journal of Behaviour Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry.

“Chronic hair-pulling, skin-picking disorder and nail-biting and various other habits are known as body-focused repetitive behaviors. Although these behaviours can induce important distress, they also seem to satisfy an urge and deliver some form of reward” explains the study’s lead author, Dr Kieron O’Connor.

The researchers undertook several experiments.

From the study’s report: “O’Connor and his colleagues came to these conclusions by working with 48 study participants, half of whom suffered these repetitive behaviours and half of whom didn’t (acting therefore as the controls.) The participants were referred to a clinical evaluator for a telephone screening interview and completed questionnaires at home. The questionnaires included a scale that evaluates emotions, including boredom, anger, guilt, irritability, anxiety. The participants were then individually exposed to four experimental situations at the research centre, each one designed to provoke a different feeling: stress, relaxation, frustration and boredom. The first two involved the screening of videos (a plane crash and the waves on a beach.) Frustration was elicited by asking the participants to complete a task that was supposedly easy and quick (it wasn’t) and boredom was caused by… leaving the participant alone in a room for six minutes!”

Those who were perpetual nail-biters claimed that they felt compelled to bite on their fingers when they were rushed through their work (they wanted more time, you see, to make things perfect) or when they were bored (left alone for six minutes or more). Commenting on their findings, the study’s lead author said: “We believe that individuals with these repetitive behaviors may be perfectionistic, meaning that they are unable to relax and to perform task at a ‘normal’ pace.” They are therefore prone to frustration, impatience, and dissatisfaction when they do not reach their goals.”

What bodily habits are you guilty of? Have you ever tried to quit? Would you describe yourself as a perfectionist?

Read more on the study here.


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