Poets have praised it, the masters have painted it, makeup artists mimic it, but most of us really hate blushing. It’s involuntary, uncontrollable and flat-out embarrassing.
As Walter Raymond Crozier, honorary professor of psychology at Britain's Cardiff University, points out in a post on The Conversation:
Blushing seems to increase our visibility when we would least like to be seen…It is associated with unpleasant social predicaments, mental confusion and uncertainty over how to behave. It creates an impression of incompetence and lack of poise. The involuntary and uncontrollable nature of the blush contributes to a sense of being unable to cope. In psychiatric diagnoses, fear of blushing is considered to be a symptom of social anxiety disorder. Many sufferers are prepared to undergo surgery on their sympathetic nervous system in order to prevent reddening – this involves cutting or clamping the nerve tissue that causes sweating and blushing. But this procedure can have unpleasant side effects such as compensatory sweating, as blushing is part of the body’s way of cooling itself down.
So if blushing makes us look even more like dopes just when we're doing something particularly dopey, why do we still do it? Shouldn't we have evolved into a race of non-blushers by now? Crozier has some theories.
Social psychologists argue that embarrassment serves valuable social functions. At a societal level, it can prove a relatively painless means of enforcing social norms. As an unpleasant experience, we are keen to avoid it, and this motivates us to regulate our own conduct without the necessity of externally imposed sanctions. In specific encounters, a blush can allow participants to overcome temporary difficulties that might otherwise disrupt or dissolve relationships in the same way that a spontaneous and sincere verbal apology offered by someone at fault can forestall any aggression and enable the encounter to continue smoothly. And for individuals indicating to others their acknowledgement of social norms and willingness to adhere to them, outward signs of embarrassment can enhance their acceptability to the group.
So when you trip over your own feet in front of a room full of people, a well-executed blush can help you out.
Research shows that participants who are seen to blush after having infringed a social norm, for example by knocking over a pile of cans in a supermarket, tend to be judged less harshly than those who carry out the same action but do not blush. A visible blush seems to enhance the observer’s impression that the blusher is ashamed, embarrassed and concerned about others’ good opinion.
But it's no get-out-of-jail free card, Crozier notes.
Research carried out by Peter de Jong and colleagues in The Netherlands finds that in ambiguous circumstances, when people’s motives are unclear – for example they cannot produce a ticket when the collector requests it – their blush tends to be perceived as a sign of guilt and they are not viewed more positively. Clearly the social context influences observers’ interpretations of reddening.
And occasionally (sigh) you just have to show the alpha dog you're no threat. Nothing communicates 'whatever you say, boss' like a bright red blush--involuntary as it may be.
Evolutionary explanations of shame regard its expression and actions that accompany it – gaze aversion, shrinking posture, hiding, fleeing – as “appeasement displays.” These act as signals to dominant individuals that [blushers] aren’t posing a threat and accept a subordinate position in the group. Appeasement displays are common among primates and the blush might be an equivalent in humans, serving as a nonverbal form of apology or offer of remediation. It can be all the more effective because the involuntary nature of the signal means that it will be judged as sincere.
Read more: For the full text of Crozier's post, go here.