“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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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change