Is there a word for unconscious movements such as stroking chin while deep in thought or bouncing a knee when bored? Possibilities that don't quite fit are body language, affectations, tics, tells, gestures.

You could tell Fred was deep in thought because he was tapping his temple with his finger. He always displays this _______ when lost in thought.

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    A comment, because I both prefer tic and cannot vouch for using fidget as a noun, but perhaps fidgeting would fill the blank here.
    – stevesliva
    Commented Dec 13, 2016 at 17:00
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    Great ideas, all. "Mannerism" is exactly what I had in mind. "(particular) fidget" mentioned below is also accurate, but not as elegant Thanks! (now how do I credit @alwayslearning - maybe I don't have the rep to do so?)
    – Jeff
    Commented Dec 13, 2016 at 17:54
  • @Jeff You give credit by accepting an answer. IIRC, even 1 rep users have the ability to do so. But, please accept the answer you feel is best, not simply the first one!
    – jpaugh
    Commented Dec 13, 2016 at 22:46
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    To recap: (unconsciously or not) Bouncing your knees is a tic. Stroking your chin is a mannerism. Both could be labeled as fidgeting. But none of those words is needed to write that sentence. You can always tell when Fred is deep in thought because he'll keep tapping his temple with his finger.
    – Mazura
    Commented Dec 14, 2016 at 0:24

11 Answers 11


You are referring to mannerisms.

"You could tell Fred was deep in thought because he was tapping his temple with his finger. He always displays this mannerism when lost in thought."


mannerism noun

2 : a characteristic and often unconscious mode or peculiarity of action, bearing, or treatment

The actor can mimic the President's mannerisms perfectly.
'quirky mannerisms such as toying with her hair and tapping her toes'

  • Yes. In the current context, 'mannerism' is an apt choice.
    – anotherDev
    Commented Dec 15, 2016 at 10:28

That is called a tic, or sometimes expanded to nervous tic. As described in the wikipedia link, a tic is a sudden, repetitive movement or sound that some people make, which can be difficult to control.

Note the spelling with no k, a tick with a k is an arachnid.

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    Given the examples the OP gave though, I don't think he was refering to tics. A tic is difficult to stop even when you're looking at yourself doing it, and it's tipically limited to muscle twitching (when refering to movement not sound). It wouldn't include something like "stroking chin", and "bouncing knee when bored" sounds like it's done semiconsciously for entertainment rather than because the leg is moving on its own.
    – JoL
    Commented Dec 13, 2016 at 18:50
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    @jlmg "Tics may increase as a result of stress, fatigue, boredom, or high-energy emotions, which can include negative emotions, such as anxiety, as well as positive emotions, such as excitement or anticipation." –Wiki. "or bouncing a knee when bored" –OP
    – Mazura
    Commented Dec 14, 2016 at 0:04
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    @cobaltduck - Small note: tics are often repetitive but they need not be. Commented Dec 14, 2016 at 5:32
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    I disagree. Tics are unvoluntary movements, like twitches. Things like stroking your chin, that are just done (semi-)subconciously, are not tics.
    – paddotk
    Commented Dec 14, 2016 at 14:58
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    @poepje: I don’t know about in technical medical usage, but in everyday speech, habitual subconscious actions like chin-stroking, head-scratching etc certainly get commonly referred to as tics.
    – PLL
    Commented Dec 14, 2016 at 17:46

I would call this fidgeting.

Fidg·et / ˈfijit/
• v. (fidg·et·ed, fidg·et·ing ) [intr.] make small movements, esp. of the hands and feet, through nervousness or impatience: the audience had begun to fidget on their chairs.

• n. a quick, small movement, typically a repeated one, caused by nervousness or impatience: he disturbed other people with convulsive fidgets.

  • a person given to such movements, esp. one whom other people find irritating.
  • (usu. fidgets) a state of mental or physical restlessness or uneasiness: a marketing person full of nervous energy and fidgets.

DERIVATIVES: fidg·et·er n. fidg·et·y adj.

"fidget." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English, via Encyclopedia.com. 12 Dec. 2016.

In your sentence,

You could tell Fred was deep in thought because he was tapping his temple with his finger. He always displays this fidgeting when lost in thought.


You could tell Fred was deep in thought because he was tapping his temple with his finger. He always displays this (particular) fidget when lost in thought.

Examples of fidgeting used for this:

A new study finds that fidgeting — the toe-tapping, foot-wagging and other body movements that annoy your co-workers — is in fact good for your health. —Gretchen Reynolds, "Why Fidgeting is Good Medicine", New York Times, 9/14/2016.

Fidgeting is making small movements with your body, usually your hands and feet. It’s associated with not paying attention. Fidgeting often reflects discomfort and restlessness. For example, if you’ve been listening to a lecture for a long time, you may find yourself tapping your pencil. —"What causes fidgeting?" Healthline.com.

And examples of usage of fidget on its own as a noun for this kind of action (definitely the less common of the two terms):

Nicks started fiddling with the tassels streaming from her mike stand, an annoying fidget that continued intermittently throughout the show. —Bill White, "Nicks still casts a musical spell", Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 8/14/2001.

Tap tap tap tap. Tim Caton taps his pencil on his desk in his hospitality management class. To classmates, it’s an annoying fidget. But Caton heeds a different beat. —"Life by the Numbers", Vox Magazine, 10/11/2012.

Man, I'm slow! Just noticed that this was suggested in comments while I've been typing. Hat-tip to @stevesliva.

  • Per the dictionary Google uses, I was surprised to see fidget itself described as a noun for the mannerism and not the person. I wouldn't call that "a fidget." I'd call it "a tic." That is why I was not leaning towards answering this way, but it is the #1 word for the action and not the mannerism. And your quotes to support the use '[a] fidget' that I was leery of.
    – stevesliva
    Commented Dec 13, 2016 at 18:28
  • Somehow I don't think fidgeting is unconscious - it's an active method of showing some kind of discomfort. Commented Dec 14, 2016 at 2:01

"Tic" is a great suggestion because it precisely fits the definition. In the interests of variety, let me suggest another word which is a close fit: twitch.


Give or cause to give a short, sudden jerking or convulsive movement:

  • [no object] ‘her lips twitched and her eyelids fluttered’
  • [with object] ‘the dog twitched his ears’

Oxford English Dictionary

Another Dictionary actually includes involuntary movement in the definition.

to make a sudden small movement with a part of the body, usually without intending to.

  • He tried to suppress a smile but felt the corner of his mouth twitch.

Cambridge Dictionary


What you may be thinking of is a Thinking Tic, which is a specific type of Tic

Thinking Tic


  • Twirling your fingers and pen, sometimes biting it in annoyance.
  • Stroking your chin or scratching your beard in wonder.
  • Drumming your fingers while staring absent-mindedly.
  • Clicking your tongue impatiently.



In psychology, it is called unconscious behavior:

any behavior that the person is not aware of (ex. mannerisms, shaking of the legs while sitting, biting your fingers, playing with your pen while listening to your teacher’s discussion, etc.)


  • Plus one for behavior (note, that is the first and foremost tag for the linked article), as it was only though learned behavior that I'm now well aware of when I shake my legs and that I have an "annoying habit of wiggling". And for most directly answering the title, as IMO the OP's dualistic context leaves us having to look for a hypernym (of basically every answer on this page).
    – Mazura
    Commented Dec 14, 2016 at 22:31

Such behavior can also be called a habit, which means a behavior or simple pattern of behaviors which is done frequently and without consciously thinking about it.

"He had the annoying habit of wiggling his shoe while concentrating, causing the shoelace to make a tapping sound which drove the other students nuts."

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    I think this is closest to what OP describes, particularly if you qualify it as a nervous habit or restless habit.
    – Jon Purdy
    Commented Dec 14, 2016 at 20:41
  • Yes, "Nervous habit" fits nicely
    – Jeff
    Commented Dec 15, 2016 at 21:16

idiosyncrasy [id-ee-uh-sing-kruh-see] noun

  1. A structural or behavioral trait peculiar to an individual or a group.

  2. A physiological or temperamental peculiarity.

The American Heritage® Stedman's Medical Dictionary, Dictionary.com

a mode of behavior or way of thought peculiar to an individual. –Google

An idiosyncrasy is an unusual feature of a person (though there are also other uses, see below). It also means odd habit. The term is often used to express eccentricity or peculiarity. A synonym may be "quirk".

The term "idiosyncrasy" originates from Greek ἰδιοσυγκρασία idiosynkrasía, "a peculiar temperament, habit of body" (from ἴδιος idios, "one's own", σύν syn, "with" and κρᾶσις krasis, "mixture").

In psychoanalysis and behaviorism, it is used for the personal way a given individual reacts, perceives and experiences a common situation: a certain dish made of meat may cause nostalgic memories in one person and disgust in another. These reactions are called idiosyncratic. –Wiki

You could tell Fred was deep in thought because he was tapping his temple with his finger. He always displays this [idiosyncrasy]* when lost in thought.

*See also, behavior, eccentricity, peculiarity, quirk, reaction, tendency and odd habit.


Tic fits well, but if you want to emphasize that the behavior involuntarily reveals something about the person's mental state or thoughts, you could use tell:

A reflexive, often habitual behavior, especially one occurring in a context that often features attempts at deception by persons under psychological stress (such as a poker game or police interrogation), that reveals information that the person exhibiting the behavior is attempting to withhold.


Could be

spasm is a sudden involuntary contraction of a muscle, a group of muscles, or a hollow organ such as the heart.

from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spasm

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    "bouncing a knee when bored" is hardly a spasm. Commented Dec 15, 2016 at 13:24

Adventitial movements is used to describe involuntary movements that lack consistent patterns like tics, tremor or myoclonic jerks, but are not severe enough to be choreiform (i.e., dance like). Figet describes the same pattern of movements

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