The reason vary, but I think these are the main reasons:
Nervous habit (people get stressed and tend to find releases, and this is a gross release)
Zoning out (some people zone out and are not aware of exactly what they are doing)
Mouth fetish (always need to be doing something with their mouth (smokers have this)
I believe that two of many reasons may be anxiety and boredom.
Anxiety - chewing nails gives a calming effect because it something one can control in an uncontrolable situation.
Boredom - Usually coupled with other bad habits.
I like Twhite answers. I chew on my finger nails all the time and it is a stress related habit
Nervousness and stress comes to mind first but I feel there is more to it than we can chew on in one bite. Perhaps the body craves for a particular 'material'. In many cultures pregnant women have strange cravings. People suffering from diabetes have a craving for sweets. I had read about a south American child who would chew off anything - pencils, chairs, desks etc.
Later it was found that he had a medical problem.
A child in our family has a special liking for plastics - yes even the TV Remote device has been chewed off!
Very simple. This is a sign of stress. People not under stress would not resort to biting, unless they have already developed a habit.
My friend's a psychologist and said we all have ticks. Sometimes it's saying things randomly and some express through physical behavior out of nerves. It could be as simple as thinking too much.
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