Why Do We Blush
Why Do We Blush
I have blushed easily all my life. I simply accepted it as unavoidable that whenever I spoke in class, arrived somewhere late or was singled out for praise or correction that my face would redden significantly. As a young child I simply assumed that everyone blushed as much as I did, and that it was only my unusually pale skin that made my tendency towards blushing more apparent. But this is not, in fact, the case. Some people blush more than others do and some families blush more than others do (2). Some attribute blushing to social phobia, though it differs in that it is not accompanied by a change in pulse rate or blood pressure (1). Blushing is generally thought to be a response to embarrassment, but is the emotion that triggers blushing as broad and general as "embarrassed"? Or are there more nuances to the emotional cause of what Darwin termed "the most peculiar and most human of all expressions" (2)?
My personal experience is that I tended to blush not exactly when embarrassed per se, but rather whenever I felt I was making, or had made, myself vulnerable to the criticism of others. When something I had done, such as arrive late, broke a social rule. What I could not understand was the purpose blushing served; what use could this phenomenon have? It became clear as I researched the issue that one's propensity for blushing was directly linked to one's sensitivity to the opinion of others (4). However, actual phenomenon of blushing is an appeasement behavior designed to signal to the rest of the group that the individual in question realizes their social transgressions and asks for the group's approval or forgiveness (1). People, like myself who blush frequently, have an oversensitive and therefore inaccurate perception of what constitutes a breach of decorum resulting in more frequent episodes of blushing than someone who did not perceive themselves to frequently commit social transgressions. The source of negative self- attention that results in this need to appease the group and by extension which leads to blushing were divided into categories: threats to public identity, scrutiny and the accusation of blushing (3). All of these result in negative self- attention and the sense that some social norm has been breached, resulting in the perceived necessity for an appeasement behavior, in this case, blushing.
Threats to public identity or a perceived negative reaction of other's often leads to blushing (3). Indeed, many people cited situations in which they have been caught or doing something of which they are ashamed as leading to blushing (3). This is consistent with blushing as an appeasement behavior. The person caught doing something that they perceive to be "shameful" or "improper" would feel the need to signal to the rest of their group that they recognize their transgression. That they reject their actions because they share the values of the groups other members and therefore that the group should accept them despite their mistake (1). Babies, for example, who have no sense of social norms or how they are perceived by others, do not blush at all (2). Blushing increases, though, when strangers witness something that an individual views as unflattering or which puts them in a negative light. For example, when three people together watched a video of one of them singing, the person who had been recorded blushed much more than the strangers (5). I personally remember the torture of being sent to theatre camp and forced to sing at the end of the summer program. The only way that I could get through the song was to stand sideways on the stage looking away from the audience, into the wings. The sight of all the strangers watching me was simply more than I could take.
Scrutiny and receiving large amounts of attention may also lead to blushing even though it may not be negative attention (3). The most obvious example of this being when adolescents of the opposite gender are in one another's presence. This is less a response to a negative reaction on the part of the observer, but rather a fear of insufficiency on the part of the blusher (3). The obvious conclusion to draw from this is that being the center of attention, positive or negative, will lead to a heightened sense of self-awareness. The blusher may feel shame or humiliation if they are the subject of negative attention, for example a publicly chastised student. The blushing would then be intended to apologize, to signal their awareness of the inappropriate nature of their behavior to all who saw it (3). It is a fairly effective way to mitigate further attack, and people tend to see it as a conciliatory gesture (6).
The accusation of blushing has been seen to increase the blusher's state. The inference that 'you are blushing' hence 'you must have done something worth blushing about'. The expectation to blush can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, the same is true of verbal feedback that blushing is in fact taking place. This is due to the fact that a propensity to blush is a serious source of anxiety to an individual who from past experiences expects blushing to take place (7). In general, having one's blush pointed out to a given individual makes them much more socially uncomfortable, though it often seems to be the source of amusement for those who are not blushing (7).
While the exact causes of blushing vary widely from individual to individual, I feel that my own personal experiences with blushing are very much in keeping with the sources three situations conducive to blushing that were discussed above. If blushing is indeed an appeasement behavior, it explains much of why, despite it's apparent lack of use, that it plays a role in our culture. It is an interesting link between one's physical self and one's mental self. What one finds embarrassing or worth apologizing for can be seen in an involuntary physical response.
4) Self-conciousness, self-focused attention, blushing propensity and fear of blushing, An article dealing with the the role that self-awareness plays in the cause and frequency of blushing
5) Empathetic Blushing in Friends and Strangers, An article dealing with the issue of blushing out of sympathy or empathy for another
6) Blushing may signify guilt, An article exploring the role that blushing plays in ambiguous situations of guilt or wrong-doing.
The impact of verbal feedback about blushing on social discomfort
and facial blood flow during embarrassing tasks, An article exploring how being made aware of one's blushing tendancies by others affects the individual who is blushing.
11/04/2005, from a Reader on the Web
Hi Serendip, I share the same thoughts as you and Blushing has become nearly a everyday routine to me. I am hindered by the moments that I feel I will blush and when I speak in class thus making me feel out of placed and looked stupid. I really wonder if there is some kind of cure to this?? Regards, Erina
I enjoyed the article. For the past ten years I have been struggling with social anxiety disorder. By facing my fears and continuing to be involved in social interaction, I feel I've made great progress. However, I continue to blush to an extreme. When I blush it often results in facial contortions which are not in the least bit amusing to the people around me. It is unsettling to them and as I observe the look on their faces, it stirs within me a panic attack, making me more nervous. Some people who were once my friends, now seem to go out of their way to avoid me, even certain family members. There are people I feel comfortable around and don't usually blush in their presence. Usually, they are older people, immigrants, or people who also have some sort of an affliction. Also, as I get "use" to people, I seem to not blush. In turn, some people have gotten use to me. Personally, I take my blushing with a grain of salt, but it is difficult for me to enjoy intimacy with any one. I have been divorced for seven years and I would like to start dating again, but I feel my blushing is an obstacle. I seem to no longer have any close friends and this bothers me because I use to have lots. Fortunately, I am a private person and don't let the lack of intimate friends get me down too much. But recently I feel the need to be more socially involved. I have been to councelling. I am not interested in taking medication to control my blushing even if there are drugs that would help. Do you know of any foods that might increase the blushing response - foods that I should avoid? Or, do you know of any foods that might minimize the blushing reflex? I live about 20 miles east of Cleveland. Are there any support groups in this area for people that blush to the extent I do? Also, I would like to volunteer to work with social phobics, not only to help someone else, but I feel this would help me too. Thank you
Thanks for presenting your knowledge on blushing in such an academic and helpful way. I also am a frequent blusher, but never could understand the reason for my problem, because it happens even when I don't feel embarrassed at all! But thanks for your help. Bless you.
thanks for the informative article, im a blusher, not only when i do wrong things, but also when i laugh when i talk, go into discussion, maybe because i get interested in everything i do, and the things that disturbs me that people immediately point it out saying "oh why your face is red" and that moment just kills... im a kind of a person who can't lie and very honest, whenever i try lying my faces blushes and i get caught, that's really annoying and i think the only way to solve this problem is to mingle and sit in a group and talk to alot of people, but unfortunately, my personality deosn't allow to do that since that i don't like mingling wih people and keep avoiding them, thanx again, we blushers are honest and whenever we see another blusher , we never tell him that his face is red because we know how it feels ... Noureddine, 15 September 2006
I consider blushing on par with a curse!!! Blushing has been my enemy from an extremely young age, which is why I felt the need to respond to this article. The author says "Babies, for example, who have no sense of social norms or how they are perceived by others, do not blush at all." I must dispute that theory. When I was still in diapers (under a year old - since I was potty trained by 1 year old) when my mom would change my diaper if my dad was in the room and made a comment my face would turn red. I, in fact, remember my face feeling very hot. My mother confirms this, saying I would turn red very red - even as a baby. How do you explain that? It was also stated that it is purely a social reaction because it doesn't happen when alone. I beg to differ. Recently I was painting my bedroom - all alone in the house. I realized I had chosen the wrong sheen - semi gloss instead of satin - and I turned totally red! I wasn't embarrassed at all. I simply realized it was the wrong sheen. My face seems to tuen red even when I truly don't feel embarassed. Then it makes me ebarassed because I'm red and people THINK I'm embarrased. Besides a red face, sometimes my neck even turns blotchy red. What other possibliity is there for such blushing, besides social embarrasement? ... Renee R, 20 September 2006
I have had a blushing problem all my life and it generally comes on when I am "on the spot" in a board meeting or being challenged by a colleague on any subject, important or otherwise. It seems to be getting worse as I get older! I am now 57 and feel it could hold me back from the final years of my career and would welcome any thoughts as to how to control it. I doubt I could take medication as I am on blood pressure treatment as it is!! ... John Scott, 9 November 2006
i blush so much! i hate it and i mean that i turn red i get so scared and so then i just want to cry because it is so bad ant i want to now how to make it stop. so plz help me because i want to be able to go up and talk to my class and not turn red and be able to have a boyfriend to without being Red ... Jennifer, 20 November 2006
I to have the case of blushing. I am always worried about what I will do to digger a blush act. I always blush when people look my way or when I am involved in activities such as running. Then I get hot and my face gets really red. Also I used to live in Washington state and only meet one other person at my school who blushed as much as me. Needless to say she and I became close friends. On moving back to Oregon I have meet many people that blush like I do. I will sit in seventh period and see lots of people who have this same problem. I think it is funny because they make fun of people who do it, yet when they are made fun of they...blush. It used to be that I would only like darker boys bacause I didn't want the chance that my kids would have to live with this ... JJ, 12 December 2006
Can anyone explain this situation. When I see a male friend, of whom I am very fond (and I think he is also interested in me), he blushes hopelessly. Is this an indication that he does not like the attention I give him, or is his blushing a sign that he feels inferior and is unable to express his feelings? ... Elizabeth Lilley, 13 April 2007
My problem has to a very huge degree spoiled my life. I have withdrawn from everything there was to enjoy in life. I even blush when I'm alone. I simply dread it. I know I've been talked about a lot. I have let friends drift from me and my family. I have lost jobs - one particular one 13 years ago I still think about with total horror. I have been described as different = (this is a word they use for people with problems like this in the Health Authority). I have heard a boss say that my problem was very disconcerting.
I would love to have had a life free of blushing. It is very controlling in that I have no control over it. I know other people are like me but I have never met anyone. I have read about operations but they are so expensive. The Highfield Hospital in London perform them ... Brenda Sheffield, 13 May 2007
Hi. Thank you very much for your very informative, as well as sensitive, posting on the subject of blushing. I discovered your site as I searched for links related to allergic reactions related to alcohol with skin flushing. Your posting has been particularly helpful as I have considered the relationship between blushing and the "allegic" response, which I believe in both case are nothing more than conditioned reactions within the mind and have nothing to do with the body, at the causal level, at all. Your posting has enabled me to form some potential emotional links to my "allergic reaction", as I realize it occurred when I was dealing with some thoughts steeped in inferiority and littleness along with some memories of a situation where I perceived judgment. Thank you for helping me better understand the cause, at its true source, of my reaction and how it is so closely attuned to the condition which to most sounds indeed more benign of blushing. This has helped remove the fear I had tagged to my experience. Now may we all realize the truth of who we really are, at one with each other, far beyond any reactions of either grandiosity OR littleness, and may we rest in the love of that union. Thank you! ... Mary, 21 May 2007
wow, you are an amazing writer, i must say i really enjoyed the article/paper.
i have struggled with this myself, but it started when i was around 15 years old, or at least it was then when i became aware of it. when ever i had to stand up to speak in class, etc (the other things you pointed out your self in the article) i will blush to a point that even my eyes will water, im 24 now and in vet-college and still got the problem, smaller crouds might not get me to blush though. i related a lot to one of the persons comments here, where he explained he used to have many friends and very sociable, till developing social fobia, hardly having any friends anymore. im going through that myself.
it was comforting to read about other peoples expierences related to this, i had never heard about other cases before, any advice is welcome! thanks for sharing ... Christian, 25 June 2007
The article and comments on blushing are very interesting. I'm 51 and I've blushed forever. I HATE IT, but I don't let it hinder me. I can think about a particular thing and I'll blush when I'm all alone - go figure! I've always tried to deny the fact that I'm timid because I see it as weakness, but the fact is, I don't like attention drawn to me. But I've had a very successful career in the corporate world and now I've switched gears to go into counseling. I hope my blushing doesn't make people feel uncomfortable, because I'm actually fine - I just have a bright red face -- which I guess could be pretty cool at Christmas! ... Reader on the web, 7 December 2007