Rage Over Repetitive Movements? It Could Be Misokinesia

By Emma L. Barratt

You may be aware of misophonia — an automatic, intense hatred of certain types of sounds, such as chewing, tapping, and breathing, to name a few. Misophonia entered mainstream awareness relatively recently, but hot on its heels is an extremely similar condition which relates not to sound, but to movement: misokinesia.

There are several well-established online support groups for those who relate to having strong negative affective responses to certain types of stimuli — typically small, repetitive movements, such as leg shaking or finger tapping. And, while it appears to be widespread, there has been a lack of dedicated research into the phenomenon — until now.

To properly introduce this under-recognised condition, Sumeet Jaswal and her colleagues based at the University of British Columbia recently published a set of studies in Scientific Reports which aimed to establish key facts about the prevalence of misokinesia and what may cause it.

In order to get a feel for the prevalence of misokinesia, as well as the viability of future studies, the team first conducted a pilot study. A total of 2751 undergraduates from the university’s psychology department were recruited for an online study in which they were asked two yes/no questions. The first, which aimed to measure the prevalence of misokinesia sensitivities, asked: “Do you ever have strong negative feelings, thoughts, or physical reactions when seeing or viewing other peoples’ fidgeting or repetitive movements (e.g., seeing someone’s foot shaking, fingers tapping, or gum chewing)?” The second question was similar, but instead probed the sounds made by these kinds of actions; common triggers for the sound-related misophonia.

In total, 38.8% of students responded that yes, they did experience the described sensitivity to certain movements. The prevalence of misophonia sensitivites appeared to be higher, with 51.1% of students reporting that they related to the given description. Interestingly, female participants reported misokinesia sensitivities significantly more than their male counterparts (43.1% vs 24.7%, respectively), and there was a high level of overlap between those who reported sensitivity to sounds and movements. Similar patterns are seen in clinical populations with misophonia, which the authors interpreted to indicate the validity of their pair of questions.

This potentially high prevalence was taken as a green light to proceed to two more in-depth studies, the first of which looked at confirming these sensitivity prevalence rates and extending into two areas: the individual differences in misokinesia, and whether there was an association with heightened visual-attentional sensitivities.

In order to measure the presence of misokinesia sensitivities, which as of yet has no standardised measure, the researchers repurposed the previously established Misophonia Assessment Questionnaire (MpAQ) to measure sensitivity to visual, rather than auditory, stimuli. Both this Misokinesia Assessment Questionnaire (MkAQ) and the MpAQ were completed by 689 participants, alongside two measures of behavioural attention.

The first of these attentional measures asked participants to detect a target at a fixation point while ignoring brief moving distractor stimuli in the peripheries. This gave the team an idea of how well participants could “block out” distractions to their attention. The second test of attention, in contrast, measured how well participants were able to attend to stimuli in to their peripheries.

Analyses found that a huge 60.3% of the sample for this study experienced misokinesia sensitivities to some extent, in line with the estimates provided by the pilot study, and the team classified about one third of participants as having “high” misokinesia sensitivies. When it came to misophonia, 70.8% of participants experienced some level of sensitivities, and 37.8% had scores indicative of both misokinesia and misophonia, further suggesting co-morbidity between the two conditions.

However, the results of the attentional tasks provided no evidence that people with misokinesia show any differences from the control group in visuospatial attention. These participants were no more easily distracted by movement in their peripheries and were just as able to orient attention to items in the peripheries as those without misokinesia sensitivities.

In all, data collected in this first study suggest that misokinesia is a widespread phenomenon within non-clinical populations. The wide range in scores on the MkAQ suggest that it is not necessarily a binary phenomenon, but may be a spectrum with many individuals experiencing mild sensitivities, and others, much more intrusive ones. It also appears that reflexive visual attention is not a particular issue for those with misokinesia.

The second study in this paper looked at prevalence of misokinesia senstitivies in an older, more diverse population of 765 participants recruited from Amazon Mechanical Turk (Mturk).

In total, 38.1% of female participants and 35.3% or male participants responded yes to the same misokinesia question used in the first study, while 69.3% of females and 76.6% of males had MkAQ scores indicative of what this study determined to be low to high levels of misokinesia sensitivites. In fact, a massive 67.3% had scores suggesting high levels of misokinesia — many more than in the first study.

These findings suggest that misokinesia is not only prevalent within the wider population (or, at least in those with an MTurk account), but also that the severity of sensitivity may increase with age, or differ by sex or ethnicity. This may be addressed in future research in other demographics that are less strongly White and male.

This paper paints a picture of misokinesia being quite prevalent in the general population. The authors are also keen to emphasise that while their studies into visual attention showed null results, differences in visual attention among this population could still exist. It’s possible that those who experience misokinesia are well practiced at controlling their visual attention, which may have made their performances more typical, or that the stimuli included weren’t appropriate for measuring the condition. It’s also possible that, given the relatively prevalent co-morbidity with misophonia, those sudden negative reactions to movement may be tied to heightened reactivity. Some misophonia research has also pointed towards the possibility that “over-mirroring” in the brain’s motor areas may be the root cause of discomfort for suffers; it’s possible that misokinesia may stem from this, too. These are all potentially fruitful avenues for future research.

As this is a newly established topic, the measures used within these studies were somewhat exploratory, and are likely to have slightly suboptimal levels of validity. For example, it is unknown whether the MpQA’s adaptation into the MkQA really captures the experience of misokinesia. Additionally, in this study the cut-off points to classify people as having “no”, “low”, and “high” misokinesia were chosen so as to divide participants into three relatively equal groups; these thresholds of severity will require further study to verify. Further explorations, potentially including qualitative measures, will be needed to truly establish misokinesia as a research topic. Even so, this first paper represents a solid first step.

Misokinesia is a sensitivity to seeing others fidget that is prevalent in the general population

Emma L. Barratt (@E_Barratt) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest