Hand-held toys known as “fidget spinners” – marketed as “stress relievers” – have become so popular and distracting in classrooms that they are now being banned in many schools. And it’s not just kids who like to fidget. Look around your office and you will probably see people bouncing their legs up and down, turning pens over and over in their hands, chewing on things, sucking on their lower lips and pulling bits of their beard out – seemingly completely unconsciously.

But why do we fidget, and why do some people do it more than others? And if it really helps to relieve stress, does that mean we should all embrace it?

These are actually rather difficult questions to answer, as there appear to be various definitions of what fidgeting is and why it happens. However, there are some interesting, if unexpected, theories.

Regulating attention

Cognitive research suggests that fidgeting is associated with how stimulated we are. That is, fidgeting may be a self-regulation mechanism to help us boost or lower our attention levels depending on what is required – either calming or energising us.

People who fidget a lot are generally more prone to mind wandering and daydreaming. We also often tend to fidget while our mind is wandering during a task. If your mind wanders, you are likely to perform more poorly on whatever task you are doing. Similarly, you typically perform worse while you are in the process of fidgeting – this has been shown to affect memory and comprehension.

Source: The surprising science of fidgeting