Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Social Functions of Blushing

It's happened to all of us. The poorly timed remark, tripping over an uneven sidewalk, a torn seam or an open button or zipper, or even the dreaded toilet paper stuck to the bottom of a shoe—embarrassment can strike at any time.

It's easy to feel as though embarrassing things happen only to you. (We tend to over-emphasize embarrassing events, but I'll let it slide if you want to pretend that you're socially savvy.) In fact, earlier this week, I came close to falling flat on my back twice—in boots that were snow and slush appropriate no less—thanks to the slippery conditions that seem to have settled in the northeast. On my way into the office, I lost my footing on a slight downhill slope and felt my feet start to slide. Before I could catch myself, someone grabbed my arm and righted me. When I stepped out for lunch, I nearly fell again: I walked right over a large patch of ice and felt my feet start to slide out from under me. Once more, a quick thinking stranger with awesome reflexes appeared at my side to keep me from connecting with the sidewalk.

Though I thanked my saviors profusely, I could feel my face flush with that telltale sign of embarrassment: the blush. I was really glad that these folks were kind enough to act. But I was also embarrassed. I've been walking for almost three decades—you'd think I would have gotten the hang of bipedalism by now. But feeling embarrassed is fine. Why do others need to know that I'm embarrassed? Why does embarrassment produce visible signals? Do they serve a purpose?

On a list of things to be embarrassed about, I'm sure that my lack of coordination ranks fairly low. Yet, the things that cause embarrassment are highly personal. And a lot of what embarrasses us depends on the responses of others. What does it mean to be embarrassed? It's an emotion involving feelings of guilt and shame, and possibly modesty. It also is marked by some pretty clear signs, one of which is blushing. We'll work with the following definition:
Embarrassment is the acute state of awkward and flustered abashment and chagrin that follows events that produce a threat of unwanted evaluations from real or imagined audiences (1).
So you may think those dance moves you've been practicing in front of the mirror are going to make you the hottest thing on the dance floor. And they very well may. But if you're the center of attention because everyone is pointing and laughing or mimicking, then what you're faced with is embarrassment. If the floor doesn't open and swallow you—as it very rarely does when you need it to—you'll likely find that you're blushing, possibly furiously if you're sensitive enough and/or fair skinned.

Blushing intrigued our good friend Darwin, so much so that it got an entire chapter in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872). It is "the most peculiar and the most human of all expressions," he wrote (2). Darwin documented examples to show that blushing affects a range of ages and races, both the sexes, and individuals with disabilities and varying faculties, leading him to conclude that:
The facts now given are sufficient to show that blushing, whether or not there is any change of colour, is common to most, probably all, of the races of man (3).
Of course, he also drew conclusions that were rather interesting: For example, he proposes that when English women blush, the farthest the color extends is the top of the chest (4). He makes this claim despite noting that there are exceptional cases to suggest that blushing responses may vary between individuals. But he also hits upon the connection between blushing and social awareness, noting that a sense of guilt or a feeling of having breached social etiquette can prompt one to blush. He frames these arguments within a fixation on appearance, stating:
Men and women, and especially the young, have always valued, in a high degree their personal appearance; and have likewise regarded the appearance of others. The face has been the chief object of attention, though, when man aboriginally went naked, the whole surface of his body would have been attended to. Our self-attention is excited almost exclusively by the opinion of others, for no person living in absolute solitude would care about his appearance. Every one feels blame more acutely than praise. Now, whenever we know, or suppose, that others are depreciating our personal appearance, our attention is strongly drawn towards ourselves, more especially to our faces (5).
Still, Darwin finds little adaptive purpose for blushing. He does suggest that it is inherited, in that we all have the ability to blush, but maintains that it is a habit, in that it is the result of a consciousness that we learn—after all, babies do not blush.

But blushing may serve a regulatory role. It's possible that blushing helps smooth out incidents that could spark potential social conflicts. It appears to be our signal that we know we've committed some transgression. Embarrassment does follow from the fear that we are being judged—that our identities are compromised. Darwin was right that we care about how others perceive us. It doesn't matter whether we have a relationship with members of the witnessing public or not, embarrassment springs from the belief that others are aware of a shortcoming. Blushing may help mitigate what are believed to be examples of social ineptness. Researchers have suggested that individuals who display visible signs of embarrassment are more likely to be treated kindly by witnesses, who are more likely offer words of support and sympathy in these cases than when individuals don't demonstrate remorse (6).

Embarrassment is a difficult experience:
  • It is uncomfortable and upsetting. Blushing may cause an individual to feel warmer than normal, and the sense of self is challenged—your identity is challenged. Some individuals may also experience extreme blushing conditions, accompanied by tingling and burning sensations in the face, ears, and neck (7).
  • It is punishable—adolescents tend to tease others who demonstrate signs that they are embarrassed.
  • Embarrassed individuals often believe the transgression is worse than it is, leading to subsequent feelings of anxiety, and possibly social avoidance.
Embarrassing events can suggest to the witnessing public that the individual doesn't fit with with the social order. The responses to embarrassment, which include a number of recognized behaviors in addition to blushing, are meant to shift the individual away from this moment of marginalization (even if it is self-imposed). The responses tell both the individual and the witness that a mistake has occurred and allows both parties to take steps to repair the relationship. Blushing is set apart from other conciliatory actions, such as gaze aversion, self-touching or grooming, and downward head movements, because it is largely involuntary, and thus viewed as a trustworthy signal of a person's emotional state (8, 9).

In fact, blushing may have worked so well as a conciliatory signal that it may be deployed in other social interactions. To avoid embarrassment, for example, an individual may deploy gaze aversion and other such actions, which may lead to blushing, before an embarrassing event actually occurs. So in an instance of social awkwardness, displaying signs of embarrassment may prompt conciliatory actions on part of both parties. Similarly in cases of flirtation, the signals of embarrassment may be deployed because they produce emotional states and responses that are similar to the outcomes that are ultimately desired:
Embarrassment leads to increased forgiveness, trust, and liking. Individuals motivated to forgive, trust, or like (or to be forgiven, trusted, or liked) will therefore rely on embarrassment-related behavior or induce it in others. Thus, flirtation is motivated by the desire for increased liking, and involved the creative display and evocation of embarrassment (e.g., through disclosure, teasing) (10).
Emotions may provide surprising insights into the nature of sociality. It is interesting that almost all people display similar responses to embarrassment. Our nonverbal signals seem to provide the strongest indicators about the state of our relationships.

Photo by Pragyan Bezbaruah from Pexels

ResearchBlogging.orgDarwin, Charles. (1886) The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. New York: D Appleton and Company.

Keltner, D., & Anderson, C. (2000). Saving Face for Darwin: The Functions and Uses of Embarrassment Current Directions in Psychological Science, 9 (6), 187-192 DOI: 10.1111/1467-8721.00091

Miller, Rowland S. (2001). On the Primacy of Embarrassment in Social Life Psychological Inquiry, 12 (1), 30-33

NICOLAOU, M., PAES, T., & WAKELIN, S. (2006). Blushing: an embarrassing condition, but treatable The Lancet, 367 (9519), 1297-1299 DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(06)68554-1

Notes: (1) Miller 2001: 31 | (2) Darwin 1886: 310 | (3) Darwin, 321 | (4) Darwin, 314 | (5) Darwin, 345 | (6) Miller, 31 | (7) Nicolaou 2006: 1297 | (8) Keltner 2000: 190 | (9) Miller, 31 | (10) Keltner, 191


  1. If it has some sort of regulatory social role, do you reckon blushing is adaptive?

    I really enjoyed reading your post. :)

  2. The argument for it serving a regulatory purpose is strong. According to Keltner, as adults when we see someone who is embarrassed, our tendency is to help mollify that concern. In social group settings, this is an important means of negotiating relationships and rankings. Think about it: If you've pissed off the Alpha male, would you want him to feel sorry for you, or continue to be mad? Even if you can't get him to stop being mad, then if you can get others in the community to sympathize with you, then you may have some protection.

    I didn't delve too deeply into the science behind why we blush, but blushing from embarrassment, instead of blushing in a flirtatious way, is driven by a surge of adrenaline. It may in fact be linked to the same system that activates the "fight or flight" response, which as we know is a means of regulating stress responses.

    Darwin is right: we've inherited the ability to blush. But I do think it's adaptive in terms of our social experiences.