Jaw shifting—the subtle stress reliever
By Joe Navarro, Psychology Today
I am often asked what it means when someone shifts their jaw to the side. I first observed this behavior in 1975, while working as a police officer. While interviewing an individual accused of shoplifting I noticed he shifted his jaw to the side when I asked the question, “Have you been arrested previously for shoplifting?” After some consideration he answered, “No.” Something struck me about that jaw behavior that prompted me to ask a follow-up question, “That’s not accurate is it?” The man did the behavior again, shifting his jaw to the side, but this time he smiled. And with that, he said, “Yes, I have been arrested before.” Something about that jaw shift caused me to question his answer.
So was that jaw shift an indicator of deception on his part? NO. What was it then and what is its significance? Over time what I found and repeatedly observed is that many individuals shift their jaw to the side when stressed. I have seen it when they have difficulty with a question, when they lack confidence or have doubts, when they have been caught doing something wrong, or when they are anxious as well as when someone is lying. Jaw shifting is not, per se, indicative of deception; there is no single clue of that, but it is a good indicator that someone is struggling with something, has issues, or may be concerned.
Why do we do this peculiar behavior? I think in part it helps to relieve stress. I know that when I do it the nerves in my jaw are stimulated (you can try this and see how it feels). When we stimulate nerves, (what I call pacifying behaviors and others call adaptive behaviors) even artificially, this helps to calm and soothe us. This is why we wring our hands and stroke our hair or massage our necks and temples when we are stressed. These external stimuli help us to calm ourselves. Which also explains why people under stress often increase their gum chewing.
As I have written here and in my books (What Every Body is Saying; Louder Than Words; and Clues to Deceit) repetitive behaviors (stroking, massaging, strumming, bouncing) are soothing behaviors that help us to deal with mild to high stress or with boredom (this is why I bounce my leg at the movies while the advertising is taking place). Having said that, jaw shifting is not a repetitive behavior. There are some people who do shift their jaw back and forth left and right to relieve stress. I suspect this is why some people grind their teeth at night; the brain has found an easy and familiar way for the jaw to relieve stress even while we sleep. This repetitive shifting of the jaw is quite noticeable and as a teacher I often see this on test day when a student is not prepared. But when individuals do it just to one side of the face and they hold it there that is not a repetitive behavior but may fulfill the same role because of how well it stimulates the nerves of the jaw.
So next time you see this behavior ask yourself why is this person doing this behavior and is it possible that they are under some kind of stress or difficulty? You may just surprise even them, just as I was many years ago—the body truly reveals what the mind conceals.