The role of hostility in fingernail biting

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A Thesis Presented to the Faculty of the Department of Psychology The University of Southern California

In Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree Master of Arts

by Charles Joseph Seret June 1950

UMI Num ber: EP63996

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T h is thesis, w r itte n by

CHARLES JOSEPH SERET u n d e r the g u id a n c e o f h.X.s.. F a c u lty C o m m itte e , a n d a p p ro v e d by a l l its

m em b ers, has been

p re se n te d to a n d a cce p te d by th e C o u n c il on G ra d u a te S tu d y a n d R e search in p a r t ia l f u l f i l l ­ m e n t o f th e re q u ire m e n ts f o r th e degree o f

__________ MASTER OF ART S ..........


D ate

Faculty Committee







The p r o b l e m ..................................


Statement of the problem



Importance of the s t u d y ...................


Definitions of terms used ...................


Nail b i t i n g ................................


Hostility or aggression .............



Nervous habit . ............................ II.

REVIEW OF THE L I T E R A T U R E .....................

4 5

Research studies on incidence of nail biting and other nervous habits


Literature on theories regarding the etiology of. nail biting and nervous habits in g e n e r a l .........................


Literature on theories regarding the treatment of nail biting III.


THE METHOD OF P R O C E D U R E ..............

22 29

Subjects used in s t u d y .....................


Materials used



Rosenzweig Picture-Frustration Study



Preliminary questionnaire .................


' Interview questions .........

. . . . . . .




RESULTS OF THE S T U D Y .......................


Findings of the study . . .................


Rosenzweig Picture-Frustration Study


Preliminary questionnaire . . . . . . . .


Interview q u e s t i o n s ..........


Discussion of findings


Rosenzweig Picture-Frustration Study






Preliminary questionnaire .............



Interview questions






C o n c l u s i o n s ................. B I B L I O G R A P H Y ......................................

49 51





Comparison of Eighteen Subjects of Control Group and Eighteen Subjects of Experimental Group on Information Obtained from Primary Questionnaire .......................



Comparison of Control and Experimental Groups on Direction of Aggression as Measured by the Rosenzweig PictureFrustration Study. . . . . .




Comparison of Control and Experimental Groups on Reaction to Frustration as Measured by the Rosenzweig PictureFrustration S t u d y ...........................



Comparison of Control and Experimental Groups on Responses to Interview Q u e s t i o n s ....................................


THE PROBLEM AND DEFINITIONS OF TERMS USED Although there is a high incidence of nail biting in the general population, this particular problem has received comparatively little attention in professional circles.’1' Various views of the etiology of nail biting have been advanced, but in very few instances has quantitative, experimental evidence been presented to support those opinions* In reviewing the literature it was noted that the handling of hostility was a common factor in many of the views advanced.

No evidence was presented, however, to

support this contention.



Statement of the problem*

It was the purpose of

this study (1) to determine whether hostility was directed inward, outward, or evaded in certain specific situations by nail biters and non-nail biters, (2) to determine the type of reaction to certain aggressive situations,

(3) to

compare certain aggressive personality factors of both

^ James 0* Goleman and J. E. McOalley, “Nail Biting Among College Students,“ The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 4*3:517, October, 1948.

groups, as obtained through, interview questions, and (4) to obtain further data about nail biters, as revealed through a questionnaire study. Importance of the study.

“Biting the fingernails is

the most widespread of all forms of habitual manipulations 2 of the body.” This conclusion was supported by the find­ ings of various investigators on the high incidence of nail 3 4 biting among children and adults. The distressing effect of nail biting upon the individual and the fact that so many people try to rid themselves of the habit was in itself an incentive to further study,3 Many views regarding the etiology of nail biting have been advanced, but these generally have been based upon limited observation rather than experimental evidence.

The lack of an experimental

basis for the underlying dynamics and therapy of nail biting emphasized the necessity of a more extensive analysis of this problem. It was not the aim of this study to offer a complete solution to the problem of nail biting.

It was hoped,

t£) n

^ Leo Kanner, A. Meyer, and E. A. Park, Child Psy­ chiatry (Baltimore: Charles 0. Thomas, 1937), p. 335. 3 L. A. Pennington, “The Incidence of Nail Biting Among Adults,” American Journal of Psychiatry, 102:241-244, September, 1945. 4 Coleman, loc. cit.

3 however, to clarify experimentally the role of one factor which would he of etiological significance in nail hiting# The handling of surface symptoms produced only temporary results and no therapeutic measure of lasting quality can he prescrihed without adequate analysis of the underlying dynamics of the problem* II*


Nall biting*

Nail biting, as used in this study,

referred to the practice of biting, nibbling, or tearing with the teeth the outer edge of the nail, or the shin at the sides of the nails, or the cuticle.

The habit was

determined by inspection of the nails by the writer and by the individual* s verification of the aet* Hostility or aggression*

The words hostility and

aggression have been used interchangeably*

S y m o n d s ^ has

given four meanings to the word aggression, the third of which has been used in this study: Aggression in its third meaning signifies an act of hostility* attach, and destruction* The essence of this meaning is the act which injures another person, either directly or indirectly, either his person or his possessions* In this meaning, aggression arises as resistance to control by others and represents all

J Percival M* Symonds, The Dynamics of Human Adjustment (New Yorh: Appleton-C entury-0rofts, Inc*, 1 9&6), pp. 81-82*

that is violent and destructive. Hostility may he defined as a state of enmity and ill-will, and as such is related to the third meaning of aggression. Hostility, then, refers to the attitude, meaning, or intent of a person which is expressed in action hy aggression.6 Nervous habit,

fhis term was used to depict a

stereotyped motor act which is generally the result of a non-adjustive reaction to unsolved personal problems.


REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE The specific problem of nail biting has not received a great deal of attention in the literature.

However, if

one takes into account the general field of nervous habits such as tics, nose-picking, and hand-rubbing, a more exten­ sive review can be made*

Regardless of this more extensive

view of the literature, relatively few experimental research studies were found.

Of these, the greater number dealt with

the incidence of the specific habit* In this chapter the literature has been divided into three phases:

(1 ) incidence, (2 ) etiology, and (3 ) treat­

ment. Research studies on incidence of nail biting and 1 other nervous habits. Coleman and McOalley1s study dealt in part, with the incidence of nail biting among college students.

A preliminary questionnaire was given out during

class periods to more than one thousand college students ranging from freshman to third-year graduate students. The field of study of the students ranged from statistics.

James C* Coleman and J. E. McOalley, “Mail Biting Among College Students,tt The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. 43:517-521, October, 1948.

pharmacy, chemistry, and law, to students in philosophy, sociology, and psychology*

By segregating these question­

naires, they were able to single out those persons (1 ) who at the time of the study were nail biters, (2 ) who at one time bit their nails but did not do so at the time of answering the questionnaire, and (3 ) who never had bitten their nails*

To promote accuracy, the authors stressed the

scientific nature of the problem and informed the subjects that all information would be held in strict confidence* An observational check was also, made on “present" nail biters.

This study disclosed that 29*3 per cent of the

males and 1 9 *3 per cent of the females were nail biters. It was also found that 22.8 per cent of the males and 35• 2 per cent of the females had at one time bitten their nails but had ceased to do so.

By adding the number of former

nail biters and present nail biters it was apparent that the incidence of nail biting was approximately the same for both sexes in childhood, but more males had persisted in the habit.

In their discussion, the authors explained

the above finding in terms of social pressure. Social disapproval and condemnation of nail biting is particularly directed toward the females in our society, and many girls admittedly gave up the habit to avoid the accompanying social disapproval. This, together with the social value of long, well-shaped fingernails, apparently constitute the primary reasons underlying the greater cessation of nail biting among

females. Of course these same factors also apply to males hut not to as great an extent.2 This study also concerned itself with the incipiency and cessation of nail biting at various age levels.


tendency toward decreased nail biting with age was found, but it was not so marked a decrease as was apparent in most other studies.

The authors accounted for this difference

as possibly due to the small age spread and the selective nature of their sample.

In addition, those who continued

to bite their nails into the adult period may have been more persistent cases.

For the group of former nail biters

it was found that males generally began the habit between the ages of five and twelve, and females between the ages of four and eight.

Females, in general, gave up the habit

between the ages of ten and fourteen, and males between the ages of twelve and sixteen.

The peak of incidence of nail

biting occurred at age twenty-two for females at age nine­ teen for males. Billig^ made an intensive study of this problem. His work covered a period of eight years.

From the years

1932 to 1935 he studied elementary school children and from

2 Ibld- ,


. 521.

3 Albert L. Billig, "Fingernail Biting: Ita Incipiency, Incidence, and Amerlioration, w Genetic Psychol o c t Monographs. 2^:123-218, August, I W l *

8 the years 1935 to 19^0 tenth grade students were studied* Data were obtained by means of interviews, catharsis, students1 accounts, and questionnaires. Some of the findings of this study revealed that: During the years 1939 to 19^0* 66 per cent of the students investigated bit their nails, or did so at one time* The incipiency of nail biting behavior is most likely to occur between the ages of eight and ten years. Among the eighty-nine nail biters studied during the 1933 to 193 ^ school year, the incipiency of nail biting showed a rise of 9 pe** cent during the sixth year and a drop of 1 7 *9 per cent during the tenth year. The greatest number of cases, 2 5 .8 per cent, had their incipiency during the ninth year. Mo cases were found to have had their incipiency before four years of age. During the years 1938 to 1939$ among thirty-three girls of the tenth grade, the greatest incipiency was again found to have been in the ninth year. Of 223 elementary school children studied during the years 193 ^ to 1 9 3 5 » it was found that 6 6 .1 per cent of the nail biters had been indulging from two to four years. modal year was two.


9 Over 50 per cent of the nail biters had desisted before reaching fifteen years of age. A study by Stevens**' on one hundred recidivists and one hundred college freshmen showed the first peak of cessation at the fifth year of age, and a second peak between eighth and tenth years of age. Wechsler^ related incidence of nail biting and the various periods of psychosexual development.

His sample

consisted of three thousand New York children.


children ranged from one year to seventeen years of age. The results of this study indicated that nail biting under three years of age does not occur.

The habit begins in the

fourth year, rises slightly in the fifth year, and jumps at age six, from which year it maintains a fairly constant level until puberty.

The percentage once more rises and

continues at a high peak for two years.

It then recedes

to a very low level which is probably the percentage at which it continues for the entire adult period. A study of naval recruits was made by Pennington and

** Guthrie, L* G., Functional Nervousness in Children. Oxford Medical Publications, 1907. 27§ pp.


Healy, W*, A. F. Bronner, E. M. H* Baylor, and J. P. Murphy, Reconstructing Behavior in Youth. New York: Knopf, 1929* 325 pp.

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Kanner, Leo, Psychopathologic Problems of Childhood. Strecker, E. A . , F. G. Ebauch, and J>. R. Ewalt,

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New York: Alfred A.

Morgan, John J. B., Psychology. New York: Farrar and Rinehart, Inc., 1930V Sl2 pp. _______ , Child Psychology.

New York: Smith, 1931*

502 pp.

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New York: Grune and Stratton,

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