Displacement Behaviours and Neuroticism in Men
Christopher Philip

Displacement behaviours are a set of nonverbal behaviours including scratching and face touching. Historically, these have been associated with anxiety and stress. However, few have taken a close look at their relationship.

A team of researchers led by Changiz Mohiyeddinia, Department of Psychology, Roehampton University, London, UK, has found more evidence that displacement behaviours are positively associated with levels of anxiety and their use plays an important role in shaping people’s response to stress.

Before undergoing the stress test, participants (all male) completed a 12-item neuroticism scale consisting of questions such as “Sometimes I feel completely worthless” and “I often feel tense or jittery.” Next, the subjects were given an arithmetic task during which time they were filmed for displacement behaviours including:

Groom: The fingers are passed through the hair in a combing movement.
Hand-face: Hand(s) in contact with the face.
Hand-mouth: Hand(s) in contact with the mouth.
Scratch: The fingernails are used to scratch part of the body, frequently the head.
Yawn: The mouth opens widely, roundly, and fairly slowly closing more swiftly. Mouth movement is accompanied by a deep breath and often closing of the eyes and lowering of the brows.
Fumble: Twisting and fiddling finger movements with wedding ring, handkerchief,
other hand.
Twist mouth: The lips are closed, pushed forward, and twisted to one side.
Lick lips: The tongue is passed over the lips.
Bite lips: One lip usually the lower is drawn into the mouth and held between the teeth.

The results found that neuroticism scores and the frequency of displacement behavior during the arithmetic test were positively associated.

Thus, those who score high on neuroticism demonstrate their negative emotional states including fear, anger, and sadness through visible behavioural cues such as hand-to-face, hand-to-mouth, lip biting, lip licking, scratching, yawning and fumbling with objects.

The researchers also found a correlation between neuroticism and cognitive ability suggesting that neuroticism is cognitively debilitating. However, displacement behaviour had a moderating effect on neuroticism and cognitive stress.

As in previous research, displacement behaviours help the participants cope such that those with increased displacement behaviour report lower levels of self-reported stress, however, high levels of neuroticism can counteract serve to negate the positive behaviour.

The study helps improve the knowledge on displacement behaviour as a possible means to detecting anxiety, stress, and neuroticism and might present future mechanisms by which people could use the behaviours in order to help mitigate negative emotions. It is also useful to those studying and reading nonverbal cues as they are readily correlated with underlying emotions.


Mohiyeddinia, Changiz; Stephanie Bauer and Stuart Semple. Neuroticism and stress: the role of displacement behavior. Anxiety, Stress, & Coping. 2015. 28(4): 391–407. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10615806.2014.1000878