Blushing: The Result of Damage to One’s Public Image

From the Lecture Series: Understanding the Mysteries of Human Behavior

By Mark Leary, Ph.D., Duke University

If a person mispronounces a word while rehearsing a lecture in front of the mirror, they would simply repeat the word correctly and continue. If the same person makes the same mistake in front of a real audience, blushing is the first result. The mistake is the same, so is the person, but why do they react so differently? Does blushing do anything useful?

The photo shows a happy, young woman feeling shy.
Blushing happens in almost any situation where a person is the center of attention or makes a bad impression on others. (Image: De fizkes/Shutterstock)

Physiology of Blushing

When someone makes a mistake in a group, no matter how small it is, they usually blush. Blushing is one of the common and sometimes annoying experiences that verifies how one feels, even if they do not want to reveal it.

When a person blushes in a public and embarrassing situation, their vessels in the face, ears, neck, and upper chest expand. This is why this zone is called the blush region. When the vessels are wider, more blood passes through the blush region, and people turn red and get a hot face.

The brighter the skin is, the more reddish the blush will be. In very dark skin colors, blushing cannot be detected by other people, but the person still feels the heat in the face.

This is a transcript from the video series Understanding the Mysteries of Human Behavior. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Eye Contact and the Silly Smile

Almost always, blushing is accompanied by two things: reducing eye contact and smiling in a silly and nervous way. When a person blushes, they look away or even drop their head, almost inevitably. It is extremely uncomfortable, to the point of impossible, to maintain eye contact with others while blushing.

The second reaction is a silly smile in a nervous way. This is less common than the first reaction but is another way to hide the distress. The embarrassed, silly smile looks different from a smile that shows happiness and positive feelings.

Sometimes people may smile to hide how distressed they are. If people play a trick on you and you are embarrassed, you might try to show everybody that you’re a good sport by smiling. But, there’s probably more to a blushing smile than that because it resembles a smile that is also observed in chimpanzees when they are socially threatened.

Learn more about why we care what others think of us.

Undesired Impressions and Public Image

If a person looks incompetent in a group of people, they blush. For example, they need to present something in a professional meeting, but they forget the topic. Everyone, including their boss, is staring at them, but they simply cannot remember anything. This person is creating an undesired impression, so they blush.

Violating social norms can also lead to blushing. Burping out loud in a restaurant, spilling the food over your clothes, or even seeing someone staring at you while picking your nose can easily make you blush. In all of these situations and an infinite number of similar examples, a person is damaging their social image and leaving a bad impression.

From all the situations that make a person blush, some scientists conclude that blushing is a response to situations that damage a person’s public image. This is most probably true, but not the whole story.

Many people also blush when they are applauded or thought highly of. Being complimented, praised, or honored can make people blush almost as much as when they forget something in a lecture. Apparently, being singled out for attention can cause blushing, whether it is a positive or a negative situation.

Learn more about why people are so full of themselves.

Being in Public

Some people blush without anything happening to them and their public image in a public situation. Sometimes, people blush when they are just speaking to other people, or talking to a group, or being the center of attention, or even when they are just being stared at.

It is particularly common to blush when some people stare at you. In a study, the participants had to sit in an empty room on a chair. Next, a curtain was pulled back so that the participant could see a group of people staring at them.

The picture shows a shy, nervous woman surrounded by her colleagues at work.
Simply being in public can make some people blush, but normally everyone blushes when they forget something during a speech or look incompetent in other ways. (Image: fizkes/Shutterstock)

The temperature sensors attached to the participants’ face and cheek showed that they blushed, even if the group was wearing sunglasses. Of course, participants blushed less when the sunglasses were on, but the act of staring made them blush anyway.

Other than staring, which makes humans and some other species blush, accusing someone of blushing can often make them blush too. If you look at a friend who is definitely not blushing and ask them, “Why are you blushing?” they first respond with, “I am not.” But if you insist, after a few times of asking, most probably they blush.

Apparently, being the center of attention, or at a potential situation where the person could turn into the center of attention, makes people blush. Even Darwin was puzzled by blushing and thought it was useless. However, some explanations present logical evolutionary reasons for it.

Common Questions about Blushing: The Result of Damage to One’s Public Image

Q: Physiologically, what happens in blushing?

In blushing, the blood vessels in the face, ears, neck, and upper chest expand. The wider vessels allow more blood to pass through. So, the face heats up from the increased blood flow, and other people can often see the person’s face change color.

Q: What do people usually do when they blush?

Reducing eye contact and smiling to hide the bad feelings are usual things that follow blushing.

Q: What behaviors can make people blush?

Even if there is no damage to the public image and no mistake has been made, staring at a person and accusing them of blushing can make them blush for no reason.

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