If we get caught red-handed, we experience shame and regret. And we tend to frown upon others when they do it in public. I'm talking, of course, about reaching up into your nostrils with a finger in an effort to scrape out snot.
Is nose-picking really all that bad? How prevalent or bad is it, really? And why really, why? The first systematic scientific study of the phenomenon may have been undertaken as recently as , by a pair of US researchers named Thompson and Jefferson.
They sent a survey by mail to 1, adult residents of Dane County, Wisconsin. Two subjects indicated that their nasal mining habits interfered with their daily lives moderately to markedly. And, to their surprise, two other people reported so much nose picking that they had actually picked a hole right trough their nasal septum, the thin tissue that separates the left and right nostrils. View image of Thinkstock Credit: Thinkstock It wasn't a perfect study; only about a quarter of those surveyed responded, and those who already had a personal interest in nose picking may have been more likely to complete and return the survey.
Still, it underscored the likelihood that nose picking, despite its cultural taboos, is pretty widespread. They reasoned that most habitual behaviours are more common among kids and teenagers than among adults, so it made sense to survey younger populations rather than older populations, to get a sense for how prevalent nose picking might be.
In addition, knowing that the Wisconsin study suffered from a possible response bias, they distributed their surveys in school classrooms, where they would have a much higher likelihood of getting a representative sample. They focused on four schools within Bangalore, one catering to children from families of lower socioeconomic status SES , two whose students tended to come from middle-class families, and a fourth school where students came from higher-earning households. In all, Andrade and Srihari compiled data from teenagers.
Nearly all of them admitted to picking their noses, on average four times per day. That's not all that enlightening; we knew this. But what are interesting are the patterns. Most of them said they did it to relieve an itch or to clear out nasal debris, but 24 of them, i. View image of SPL Credit: SPL And it wasn't just fingers. A total of 13 students said they used tweezers to pick their noses, and nine said they used pencils. Nine of them — nine! There were no differences according to socioeconomic class; nose picking is something that truly unites us all.
There were, however, some gender differences. Boys were more likely to do it, while girls were more likely to think it a bad habit. Boys were also statistically more likely to have additional bad habits, like biting their nails onychophagia or pulling out their hair trichotillomania.
In some extreme cases, nose-picking can cause, or be related to, more serious problems, as Andrade and Srihari found when they reviewed the medical literature. Then there was a year-old woman whose chronic nose picking not only led to a perforation of her nasal septum; she actually carved a hole into her sinus. SPL And there was a year-old man who had a previously undocumented convergence of trichotillomania hair-plucking and rhinotillexomania nose-picking. It forced his doctors to coin a new term: His behaviour involved compulsively pulling out his nose hairs.
When his hair pulling got too extreme, his nose would become inflamed. To treat the inflammation, he began applying a solution that had the side effect of staining his nose purple. To his surprise, the purple stain concealed his visible nose hairs, making him far more relaxed.
He was actually more comfortable leaving the house with a purple nose than with visible nose hairs. His doctors, who succeeded in treating him with drugs, describe his compulsion as a manifestation of body dysmorphic disorder, which is sometimes thought of as an "obsessive compulsive spectrum disorder".
Nose for danger Most of us can rest safe knowing that our occasional, discreet nose picking is probably not the pathological variety. It's interesting that despite the fact that nail-biting and nose-hair plucking are well-recognised manifestations of obsessive-compulsive disorder , rhinotillexomania is generally not.
But that doesn't mean it's completely safe. In a study , a group of Dutch researchers found that nose picking can help bacterial infections get around. They discovered that nose pickers at an ear, nose, and throat clinic were more likely to carry Staphylococcus aureus bacteria in their noses than non-pickers. Among healthy volunteers, they found something similar: SPL So, given all these risks, and the potential for provoking disgust in other people, why do we still do it?
Or perhaps nose picking is just evidence of laziness. Fingers, after all, are never in short supply when you feel the urge to clear your nostrils. Which is more than can be said about a box of tissues. It's gratifying to know that some researchers are still trying to understand the reasons we pick our noses and the consequences that arise from it.
In , the Indian researchers, Andrade and Srihari, were recognised for their work with an Ig Nobel prize, which is given for research that first makes you laugh and then makes you think. At the ceremony, Andrade remarked, "some people poke their nose into other people's business. I made it my business to poke my business into other people's noses.