Why Do We Bite Our Nails?

iStock
iStock

It can happen anywhere. Maybe you're waiting in the lobby of your doctor's office or studying at home for a big test—and then, without you even registering it, your fingertips are in your mouth and your teeth are gnawing away.

Even the people who do it tend to see nail biting as a nasty habit, but that doesn't make it any less prevalent. Twenty to 30 percent of people admit to biting their nails on a regular basis. Though reasons for the behavior vary, research has shown that most people do it because they need a psychological crutch, and not because they like having dirty, ragged fingernails.

According to Kieron O'Connor, a researcher at the University Institute of Mental Health at Montreal, there’s no one mood associated with nail biting. “People think you only bite when you’re stressed, but it’s not so simple,” O'Connor tells Mental Floss. “People will also bite when they’re bored and alone.” Nail biting feels good (in moderation at least), so when some people have nothing to do, or want to avoid the task in front of them, they bring their nails to their mouth out of habit. This same thing happens when nail biters feel overwhelmed by a stressful situation, or when they’re ruminating over some past behavior they feel embarrassed about. In all cases, nail biting is used as a mood regulator: a tool that distracts them or provides temporary relief or stimulation whenever an unwanted feeling comes up.

A study co-authored by O’Connor found that nail biting is more common in perfectionists. After speaking with 48 subjects, half with habit disorders like nail biting and half without, they found that the nail biters tended to be organizational perfectionists, or people who tend to over-plan, work too much, and become restless when they don’t have enough to do. “When people are perfectionists, they get bored and frustrated very easily and hold themselves to higher standards,” O’Connor says. “They plan too much, and when they can’t do all of it they have a sense of failure.”

So what is it about nail biting specifically that makes some people turn to the behavior when they’re feeling less than fantastic? Like many of our worst habits, nail biting is an evolutionary adaptation kicked into overdrive. Even before we had access to aisles worth of beauty products, humans practiced self-grooming, which includes getting rid of the occasional hangnails. But even nail biters with short, clean nails will engage in the behavior: They use it as a way to get the mental reward our brains associate with grooming without any of the cosmetic benefits.

Nail biting manifests itself at different levels of intensity. At one extreme there’s onychophagia, a condition where compulsive nail biting requires medical attention. Like skin picking and hair pulling, nail biting can be a symptom of a body-focused habit disorder. When it gets to the point that someone is harming themselves by chewing their nails so often, they usually require a mental health professional to help them curtail the behavior.

But for far more people, nail biting is just an annoying habit that’s hard for them to quit—no matter how much the squeamish people around them wish they would.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

What Happened to the Physical Copy of Martin Luther King's 'I Have a Dream' Speech?

AFP, Getty Images
AFP, Getty Images

On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and gave a speech for the ages, delivering the oratorical masterpiece "I Have a Dream" to nearly 250,000 people.

When he was done, King stepped away from the podium, folded his speech, and found himself standing in front of George Raveling, a former Villanova basketball player who, along with his friend Warren Wilson, had been asked to provide extra security around Dr. King while he was speaking. "We were both tall, gangly guys," Raveling told TIME in 2003. "We didn't know what we were doing but we certainly made for a good appearance."

Moved by the speech, Raveling saw the folded papers in King’s hands and asked if he could have them. King gave the young volunteer the speech without hesitation, and that was that.

“At no time do I remember thinking, ‘Wow, we got this historic document,’” Raveling told Sports Illustrated in 2015. Not realizing he was holding what would become an important piece of history in his hands, Raveling went home and stuck the three sheets of paper into a Harry Truman biography for safekeeping. They sat there for nearly two decades while Raveling developed an impressive career coaching NCAA men’s basketball.

In 1984, he had recently taken over as the head coach at the University of Iowa and was chatting with Bob Denney of the Cedar Rapids Gazette when Denney brought up the March on Washington. That's when Raveling dropped the bomb: “You know, I’ve got a copy of that speech," he said, and dug it out of the Truman book. After writing an article about Raveling's connection, the reporter had the speech professionally framed for the coach.

Though he displayed the framed speech in his house for a few years, Raveling began to realize the value of the piece and moved it to a bank vault in Los Angeles. Though he has received offers for King’s speech—one collector wanted to purchase the speech for $3 million in 2014—Raveling has turned them all down. He has been in talks with various museums and universities and hopes to put the speech on display in the future, but for now, he cherishes having it in his possession.

“That to me is something I’ll always be able to look back and say I was there,” Raveling said in the original Cedar Rapids Gazette article. “And not only out there in that arena of people, but to be within touching distance of him. That’s like when you’re 80 or 90 years old you can look back and say ‘I was in touching distance of Abraham Lincoln when he made the Gettysburg Address.’"

“I have no idea why I even asked him for the speech,” Raveling, now CEO of Coaching for Success, has said. “But I’m sure glad that I did.”

What is a Polar Vortex?

Edward Stojakovic, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Edward Stojakovic, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

If you’ve turned on the news or stepped outside lately, you're familiar with the record-breaking cold that is blanketing a lot of North America. According to The Washington Post, a mass of bone-chilling air over Canada—a polar vortex—split into three parts at the beginning of 2019, and one is making its way to the eastern U.S. Polar vortexes can push frigid air straight from the arctic tundra into more temperate regions. But just what is this weather phenomenon?

How does a polar vortex form?

Polar vortexes are basically arctic hurricanes or cyclones. NASA defines them as “a whirling and persistent large area of low pressure, found typically over both North and South poles.” A winter phenomenon, vortexes develop as the sun sets over the pole and temperatures cool, and occur in the middle and upper troposphere and the stratosphere (roughly, between six and 31 miles above the Earth’s surface).

Where will a polar vortex hit?

In the Northern Hemisphere, the vortexes move in a counterclockwise direction. Typically, they dip down over Canada, but according to NBC News, polar vortexes can move into the contiguous U.S. due to warm weather over Greenland or Alaska—which forces denser cold air south—or other weather patterns.

Polar vortexes aren't rare—in fact, arctic winds do sometimes dip down into the eastern U.S.—but sometimes the sheer size of the area affected is much greater than normal.

How cold is a polar vortex?

So cold that frozen sharks have been known to wash up on Cape Cod beaches. So cold that animal keepers at the Calgary Zoo in Alberta, Canada once decided to bring its group of king penguins indoors for warmth (the species lives on islands north of Antarctica and the birds aren't used to extreme cold.) Even parts of Alabama and other regions in the Deep South have seen single-digit temperatures and wind chills below zero.

But thankfully, this type of arctic freeze doesn't stick around forever: Temperatures will gradually warm up.

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