Being in an anxious, stressful situation may make people less slovenly. A study in the journal Current Biology found a link between temporary anxiety and obsessive cleaning.
To see how people acted when anxious, researchers led by University of Connecticut anthropologist Martin Lang prodded a group of Czech university students to freak out over a public speaking task (so-called glossophobia is regularly cited as one of people’s most common fears). First, students were presented with a shiny statue, and asked to come up with a speech about it. After giving their speech to a panel, they were asked to clean the object.
Compared to a control group who didn’t have to give a speech, participants who had to face the anxiety-inducing task of speaking in front of an expert panel were more repetitive in the way they cleaned. The amount of anxiety the students reported feeling over the task predicted how many repeated movements they made while cleaning, and how long they spent doing it before they declared the object suitably spiffy.
The study’s authors hypothesize that in times of stress, people might turn to repetitive behavior like cleaning because it gives them a sense of control over an otherwise uncertain situation. In the absence of a very defined, pre-set task (such as cleaning), people under pressure—before a competition, say—may turn to different outlets, like biting their nails or praying.