Blushing through Evolution: Do Animals Blush?

From the Lecture Series: Understanding the Mysteries of Human Behavior

By Mark Leary, Ph.D., Duke University

Blushing is not only seen in humans. Some other species also show the same reaction in similar situations. Looking at blushing through evolution shows that, like many other psychological traits, blushing was also meant to help species survive. But how can any creature survive by turning red and looking away?

The picture shows a dog putting its paw on its face.
Blushing itself is perhaps only a human reaction, but behaviors that accompany blushing and the reasons for it are seen in some other species too. (Image: SeventyFour/Shutterstock)

A person blushes when they receive undesired public attention, regardless of its positivity or negativity. Too many compliments or a stupid comment that makes everyone look at you in wonder will make you blush.

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

Characteristics Involved in Blushing

Although everyone has most probably experienced blushing, some people blush too much. Not all people blush in the same social situations, while some might blush over the slightest things. If undesired social attention is the main cause of blushing, then the often-blushers must be those who are bothered more with social attention.

Naturally, the characteristics of a person can affect how bothered they are with being the center of attention.

The picture shows a happy woman surrounded with her colleagues.
There are some people who are all the time aware of being the focus of others’ attention. These people can blush over the slightest things. (Image: fizkes/Shutterstock)

Public self-consciousness is the first blush-related characteristic. It refers to how much people care for how others view them. People who are high in public self-consciousness are more aware of being the focus of others’ attention than people who are low in public self-consciousness.

Next, there is the fear of negative evaluation. If a person is too afraid of being evaluated negatively, they are bothered a lot with social attention. Every event of social attention can be a potential negative evaluation, so it is easier to avoid the situation right from the beginning.

The last characteristic is one of the most familiar ones: self-confidence. If a person has low self-confidence, they do not enjoy being the center of attention in public situations. Lack of self-confidence makes some worry about being seen as incompetent more than other people.

Being viewed as incompetent is one of the main reasons for blushing, which makes people blush when they forget something in the middle of a business meeting. Regardless of the reason and the characteristic behind it, blushing makes the blusher reduce eye contact and even smile in a nervous and silly way. Others also look away from the blusher.

Learn more about what makes people happy.

The Creeping Blush

Other than the sudden rush of blood to the face and ears, there is a slow blush, the creeping blush. This one starts slowly, usually from the chest or the neck, and takes several minutes. Even when it is completed, it does not look like a full blush, but people with a creepy blush feel the heat in their face all the time.

The creeping blush can sometimes be mistaken for social anxiety, but it is not. For example, when talking to an audience, the creeping blush might take up to 15 minutes to fully develop. Yet, there is no single event that caused it – no sudden attention or mistake. Apparently, some sort of undesired attention is involved here too.

The creeping blush goes away as slowly as it developed and usually lingers on for a while after the event is over. The reason for this kind of blushing is not known either, and scientists cannot tell why it develops so differently from the classic sudden blush.

Viewing blushing through evolution has revealed that it is a kind of human appeasement, but why exactly humans turn red in the face is still a mystery. In fact, did you know some animals also show signs of blushing?

Learn more about why self-control is so hard.

Nonverbal Appeasement Display

Studying blushing through evolution has shown that it is a nonverbal appeasement display in some apes, including chimpanzees. An appeasement display is meant to reduce social threats from other members of the species.

To show how harmless they are, smaller members or those of lower social ranks engage in behaviors like blushing. When a person blushes, people around them feel uncomfortable to look at them. When an animal shows such signs, the more powerful member believes that they are no threat and walks away.

The appeasement may not always be successful, but if it is, usually, the threatening animal loses interest and does not attack.

Learn more about why we have emotions.

Appeasement in Chimpanzees

Many other species try appeasement to save their lives in contact with a threatening animal, and so do chimpanzees. It does not mean that they necessarily blush as humans do, but they show similar behavior. Even if they do blush, the skin color and all the hair will not let it show.

However, chimpanzees also look away when they appease since eye contact is interpreted as a challenge. Secondly, they smile! This smile looks very much like the silly and embarrassed smile that humans have when they blush.

In humans, merely staring at a person can make them blush, and the same happens with chimpanzees, especially when the dominant animal stares at the less dominant one. As blushing deters undesired public attention, appeasement usually does the same. It lowers the likelihood of aggression.

Thus, blushing is not a typical human trait. Animals blush to appease or save their lives from another threatening animal.

Common Questions about Blushing through Evolution

Q: What is the evolutionary purpose of blushing?

Studies that focused on blushing through evolution showed that many species blush, and the most probable reason is to show a potentially dangerous opponent that the blusher is not dangerous, and they do not need to attack.

Q: Is blushing uniquely human?

No, animals also blush. Looking at blushing through evolution shows that it is more than just a reaction to embarrassing situations.

Q: What is public self-consciousness?

The extent to which people think about how they are viewed by other people than other people do is called public self-consciousness. Studying blushing through evolution has shown that group members who are more publicly self-conscious blush more.

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