Noticing somebody near you fidgeting can be distracting. Vexing. Even excruciating. But why?
According to the 2021 study, the stressful sensations caused by seeing others fidget are an incredibly common psychological phenomenon, affecting as many as one in three people.
Called misokinesia – meaning 'hatred of movements' – this strange phenomenon has been little studied by scientists, but has been noted in the research of a related condition, misophonia: a disorder where people become irritated upon hearing certain repetitious sounds.
Misokinesia is somewhat similar, but the triggers are generally more visual, rather than sound-related, researchers say.
"[Misokinesia] is defined as a strong negative affective or emotional response to the sight of someone else's small and repetitive movements, such as seeing someone mindlessly fidgeting with a hand or foot," a team of researchers, led by first author and psychologist Sumeet Jaswal, then at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Canada, explained in the paper.
"Yet surprisingly, scientific research on the topic is lacking."
To improve our understanding, Jawal and fellow researchers conducted what they said was the "first in-depth scientific exploration" of misokinesia – and the results indicate that heightened sensitivity to fidgeting is something a large number of people have to deal with.
Across a series of experiments involving over 4,100 participants, the researchers measured the prevalence of misokinesia in a cohort of university students and people from the general population, assessing the impacts it had upon them, and exploring why the sensations might manifest.
"We found that approximately one-third self-reported some degree of misokinesia sensitivity to the repetitive, fidgeting behaviors of others as encountered in their daily lives," the researchers explained.
"These results support the conclusion that misokinesia sensitivity is not a phenomenon restricted to clinical populations, but rather, is a basic and heretofore under-recognized social challenge shared by many in the wider, general population."
According to the analysis, misokinesia sometimes goes hand in hand with the sound-sensitivity of misophonia, but not always.
The phenomenon seems to vary significantly among individuals, with some people reporting only low sensitivity to fidgeting stimuli, while others feel highly affected.
"They are negatively impacted emotionally and experience reactions such as anger, anxiety, or frustration as well as reduced enjoyment in social situations, work, and learning environments," explained UBC psychologist Todd Handy in 2021.
"Some even pursue fewer social activities because of the condition."
Handy began researching misokinesia after a partner told him he was a fidgeter and confessed she felt stress when he fidgeted (or anybody else for that matter).
"As a visual cognitive neuroscientist, this really piqued my interest to find out what is happening in the brain," Handy said.
So, the million-dollar question stands: Why do we find fidgeting so annoying?
In the study, the researchers ran tests to see if people's misokinesia might originate in heightened visual-attentional sensitivities, amounting to an inability to block out distracting events occurring in their visual periphery.
The results based on early experiments were inconclusive on that front, with the researchers finding no firm evidence that reflexive visual attentional mechanisms substantively contribute to misokinesia sensitivity.
While we're still only at the outset then of exploring where misokinesia may spring from on a cognitive level – other than, you know, fidgeting people being kind of annoying to some – the researchers do have some hypothetical leads they want to pursue in future research.
"One possibility we want to explore is that their 'mirror neurons' are at play," Jaswal said.
"These neurons activate when we move but they also activate when we see others move… For example, when you see someone get hurt, you may wince as well, as their pain is mirrored in your own brain."
By extension, it's possible that misokinesia-prone people might be unconsciously empathizing with the psychology of fidgeters. And not in a good way.
"A reason that people fidget is because they're anxious or nervous so when individuals who suffer from misokinesia see someone fidgeting, they may mirror it and feel anxious or nervous as well," Jaswal said.
As to whether that's what's really going on here with misokinesia, only further research into the phenomenon will be able to say for sure.
One thing is certain though. From the results seen here, it's clear that this unusual phenomenon is much more usual than we realized.
"To those who are suffering from misokinesia, you are not alone," Handy said. "Your challenge is common and it's real."
The findings are reported in Scientific Reports.
A version of this article was first published in September 2021.