“Thank goodness this picture is black and white, otherwise you’d be able to see me blushing!” Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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Why do we blush?

Why should an emotional response take this particular form and does it serve any purpose?

Awkward and embarrassing, the human act of blushing raises many difficult psychological and physiological questions. Why should an emotional response take this particular form and does it serve any purpose? Signs of fear such as pallor, trembling and “butterflies in the stomach” seem to make sense in terms of the body’s preparation for action – but the utility of face reddening and increased skin temperature is not so evident.

Blushing seems to increase our visibility when we would least like to be seen. Making generalisations about its function is also made difficult by the fact that blushing is more noticeable on certain skin types. This raises the question of whether or not it is always the same or if there are distinct types, with different meanings. Scientific research is beginning to address these questions although there is still no consensus on answers.

A source of embarrassment

Where there does seem to be consensus is that most of us dislike our blushing. 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.

Benefits of blushing

But are we right to think of the blush in solely negative terms? This brings us back to the question of its function. Bodily reactions that give rise to unpleasant experiences can serve vital protective purposes, for example in the case of fear, shame or pain.

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 as 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, by 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.

From this perspective, if there was no embarrassment, then aggression might result or social rejection – the shameless, brazen, “unblushing” person is not someone whose company we would necessarily seek out. Is this where the functions of the blush are to be found?

Betraying innocence

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 – indeed, the inadvertent nature of the blush may contribute to this judgement.

Yet this is not always the case. Research carried out by Peter de Jong and colleagues in The Netherlands finds that in ambiguous circumstances, where 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.

My current research interest is in blushing in the absence of a transgression or mishap, notably when some cue induces anxiety that something is likely to be revealed about us that we would prefer not to become known. In these circumstances the blush might actually produce the predicament or negative judgements that we fear.

Evolutionary origins

Some theorists locate observations on blushing within an evolutionary framework. 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 they 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.

We have no direct evidence for this and no indication whether the blush serves similar functions across cultures or among people of different skin types. Perhaps the transient unpleasantness of the blush is a price worth paying for the wider and longer-term benefits for society and indeed for the individual blusher.

The ConversationWalter Raymond Crozier does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.