“Thank goodness this picture is black and white, otherwise you’d be able to see me blushing!” Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Show Hide image

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.

Getty
Show Hide image

This is no time for a coup against a successful Labour leader

Don't blame Jeremy Corbyn for the Labour Party's crisis.

"The people who are sovereign in our party are the members," said John McDonnell this morning. As the coup against Jeremy Corbyn gains pace, the Shadow Chancellor has been talking a lot of sense. "It is time for people to come together to work in the interest of the country," he told Peston on Sunday, while emphasising that people will quickly lose trust in politics altogether if this internal squabbling continues. 

The Tory party is in complete disarray. Just days ago, the first Tory leader in 23 years to win a majority for his party was forced to resign from Government after just over a year in charge. We have some form of caretaker Government. Those who led the Brexit campaign now have no idea what to do. 

It is disappointing that a handful of Labour parliamentarians have decided to join in with the disintegration of British politics.

The Labour Party had the opportunity to keep its head while all about it lost theirs. It could have positioned itself as a credible alternative to a broken Government and a Tory party in chaos. Instead we have been left with a pathetic attempt to overturn the democratic will of the membership. 

But this has been coming for some time. In my opinion it has very little to do with the ramifications of the referendum result. Jeremy Corbyn was asked to do two things throughout the campaign: first, get Labour voters to side with Remain, and second, get young people to do the same.

Nearly seven in ten Labour supporters backed Remain. Young voters supported Remain by a 4:1 margin. This is about much more than an allegedly half-hearted referendum performance.

The Parliamentary Labour Party has failed to come to terms with Jeremy Corbyn’s emphatic victory. In September of last year he was elected with 59.5 per cent of the vote, some 170,000 ahead of his closest rival. It is a fact worth repeating. If another Labour leadership election were to be called I would expect Jeremy Corbyn to win by a similar margin.

In the recent local elections Jeremy managed to increase Labour’s share of the national vote on the 2015 general election. They said he would lose every by-election. He has won them emphatically. Time and time again Jeremy has exceeded expectation while also having to deal with an embittered wing within his own party.

This is no time for a leadership coup. I am dumbfounded by the attempt to remove Jeremy. The only thing that will come out of this attempted coup is another leadership election that Jeremy will win. Those opposed to him will then find themselves back at square one. Such moves only hurt Labour’s electoral chances. Labour could be offering an ambitious plan to the country concerning our current relationship with Europe, if opponents of Jeremy Corbyn hadn't decided to drop a nuke on the party.

This is a crisis Jeremy should take no responsibility for. The "bitterites" will try and they will fail. Corbyn may face a crisis of confidence. But it's the handful of rebel Labour MPs that have forced the party into a crisis of existence.

Liam Young is a commentator for the IndependentNew Statesman, Mirror and others.