For example, when I'm really concentrating on something I'll start chewing on my tongue and will rarely even realize I've started doing this unless someone asks me what the heck I'm doing.

I vaguely remember once hearing about a specific term for this type of unconscious behavior but I can't remember what it is.

  • 3
    Are you asking for a specific technical term meaning "unconscious behavior" (an abstract noun to include all such types of behaviour, collectively)? Or an adjective that could be applied to behaviour as an alternative to unconscious? Commented May 22, 2015 at 13:24
  • @Phillip Are the synonyms easily found in a dictionnary – unintentional, unwitting, unintended, inadvertent, accidental, unpremeditated, subconscious, automatic–not fitting the bill ? And if not, can you precise what you looking for ?
    – P. O.
    Commented May 22, 2015 at 13:37
  • No I'm almost certain there's an actual scientific term for the behavior I'm describing; a sort of umbrella term that incorporates all of those synonyms.
    – Philip
    Commented May 22, 2015 at 16:41
  • 2
    This might be better asked on cogsci.stackexchange.com since you're asking about scientific terminology. Commented May 22, 2015 at 17:52

5 Answers 5


Detectives and poker players refer to such behaviors as tells, while lay people might call them nervous habits.


Are you thinking of mannerisms?

a particular habit or way of speaking or behaving that somebody has but is not aware of

He has this irritating mannerism of constantly scratching his nose.


  • 1
    +1, a great word! May I suggest adding one of the examples from your link as well - the first one with nose scratching would work best, IMO. I know that people can see it when they click on the link, but this would make more obvious how well this word fits, for those (like me) who haven't known of it before :-)
    – Lucky
    Commented May 22, 2015 at 17:44

Are you thinking of "tic" ?

A tic is a sudden, repetitive, nonrhythmic motor movement or vocalization involving discrete muscle groups.

Or maybe "OCD", "Obsessive–compulsive disorder" :

mental disorder where people feel the need to

  • check things repeatedly,
  • have certain thoughts repeatedly,
  • and feel they need to perform certain routines repeatedly.

Just for your information, in french, "OCD" is abbreviated "TOC" and is often mixed up with "tic".


I think you are referring to compulsive behaviours:

  • *Plenty of people suffer from one form of compulsive behavior or another. There's compulsive shopping, hoarding, eating, gambling, or even pulling one's hair out. And, of course, there is garden variety obsessive compulsiveness. When a person has a compulsion, he is trapped in a pattern of repetitive and senseless thinking—and these behaviors can prove quite difficult to overcome.


  • Nail biting, is an oral compulsive habit (sometimes described as a parafunctional activity; the common use of the mouth for an activity other than speaking, eating or drinking). (Wikipedia)
  • Compulsive shoppers are aware that they are shopping. Others don't have to point it out. In fact, none of your examples activities are done unconsciously.
    – Tushar Raj
    Commented May 22, 2015 at 13:30
  • @TusharRaj - it is a wide categories of behaviours, including those which are apparently unconscious ( because of very frequent repetitions) like nail-biting.
    – user66974
    Commented May 22, 2015 at 13:34
  • But doesn't the OP wants something more specific to unconscious behaviour?
    – Tushar Raj
    Commented May 22, 2015 at 13:35
  • 1
    @TusharRaj - nail-biting fits OP context.
    – user66974
    Commented May 22, 2015 at 13:36
  • I'm not looking for a habit-specific term but rather an umbrella term used to describe any sort of unconscious action a person may do without realizing it (nail-biting, hair-twirling, tongue-chewing etc.). The key is that the person must be entirely unaware of the action until it's pointed out to them.
    – Philip
    Commented May 22, 2015 at 16:45

Parafunctional activity (or) parafunctional habit

A para-functional habit or parafunctional habit is the habitual exercise of a body part in a way that is other than the most common use of that body part. The term is most commonly used by dentists, orthodontists, or maxillofacial specialists to refer to para-functional uses of the mouth, tongue and jaw. Oral para-functional habits may include bruxism (tooth-clenching and/or grinding), tongue tension ("tongue thrusting"), fingernail biting, pencil or pen chewing, mouth breathing, and any other habitual use of the mouth unrelated to eating, drinking, or speaking.


Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.