Scientific Explanations for Blushing

From the Lecture Series: Understanding the Mysteries of Human Behavior

By Mark Leary, Ph.D., Duke University

What is blushing? The rush of blood to the blush zone. Why does it happen? Well, many scientists have tried to answer that question, but no comprehensive and scientific answer is presented yet. Obviously, it is related to public presence, but it is not so clear why it happens. Even Darwin’s and Freud’s explanations for blushing were not convincing.

Young, beautiful girl covering her mouth with her hands.
Usually, explanations for blushing focus on the what side of it and cannot explain why people blush. (Image: sun ok/Shutterstock)

Darwin’s Explanation for Blushing

When Darwin wrote the book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, he explained many emotions, but for blushing, he had only some observations and bewilderment, not explanations. In fact, he didn’t think that blushing does anything.

Darwin believed that blushing merely made the blusher and the beholder uncomfortable. He thought that people blush when they focus on a particular part of their body. Their self-attention interferes with the contractions of the blood vessels of that part and makes the vessels expand.

He further explained that the reason blushing happens in the face is that other people’s attention to our face makes us also focus on our own face. Thus, the blood vessels in the face expand, and we blush. Despite Darwin’s groundbreaking theories, his explanations for blushing were simply wrong.

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

Psychoanalytic Approaches

The psychoanalysts have also offered explanations for blushing that were mainly built around Sigmund Freud’s thoughts. Thus, the unconscious mind was the leading player.

The photo shows a cute Asian girl who is blushing when someone is giving her a flower.
Psychoanalytic approaches focused on the reasons for blushing, but even that could not explain why people blush when they receive positive social attention. (Image: Wasan Tita/Shutterstock)

Many psychoanalysts speculated that blushing is a result of repressed exhibitionism. Exhibitionism refers to a person’s unconscious desire to expose themselves to other people, and when it is oppressed because of social norms, people blush. The blood that rushes through the face is redirected from the genitals.

There is no scientific support for this psychoanalytical claim, and it fails to explain many cases of blushing. In fact, they have mainly focused on the causes, not the process.

Learn more about solving psychological mysteries.

The Remedial Perspective

Thomas Henry Burgess has offered an explanation for blushing in his book Physiology or Mechanism of Blushing. It was published in 1839, and Burgess explained in it that blushing is a way of showing other people how we realize we have broken a social or moral rule or norm.

If a person is caught breaking a social norm and does not blush, it shows one of the two possible things: they either do not realize that they have violated a norm, or they do not care about breaking social rules.

Not being sorry about breaking social norms is not a good sign for the other members of a group. The person who does not blush over breaking norms might not be trustworthy. On the other hand, the person who blushes and proves how sorry they are can be a good member of the group. The reason people rely on blushing so much is that it cannot be faked.

Apparently, if people see you blush after breaking a social norm, they are more forgiving toward you. In other words, blushing is a genuine apology. In several studies, participants watched a series of videos of other people doing undesirable things, and then either appearing to be embarrassed or unaffected by what they did.

The participants rated those who seemed embarrassed more positively than those who did not. Hence, if you do something socially wrong and you blush, do not hide it. People are more forgiving when they see that the person blushes and is truly sorry for what they have done.

Still, the remedial perspective does not offer explanations for blushing when people are happy or receiving attention in a positive way.

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Undesired Social Attention

What do you do when someone is blushing? You look away. The most common and natural reaction to seeing someone blush is to stop paying attention to them. The person who is blushing cannot maintain eye contact with people around anymore, but the people around them will also feel uncomfortable by looking at the blusher.

Perhaps, blushing is also a signal that the blusher does not want public attention anymore. The natural reaction to it is behaving according to the person’s will and taking the attention away.

Blushing can result from making a bad impression, making a good impression, being accused of blushing or simply being stared at. What do all these situations have in common? Undesired social attention.

People blush when they receive attention in a social event, but they do not want it. Naturally, when a person is violating a social norm, has made a mistake that questions their competency, or makes a fool of themselves in a group of people, they receive undesired attention. People do not want to be looked at when they are making a bad impression and ruining their social face.

In positive situations, attention can also get undesired. Almost everyone likes to be complimented and honored, but when someone in the group keeps complimenting up to the point of exaggeration, the attention gets too much.

Common Questions about SExplanations for Blushing

Q: What did Darwin think about blushing?

Darwin could not find any convincing explanation for blushing, and he thought it was a very puzzling function, as he wrote in his book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.

Q: Does blushing occur from repressed exhibitionism?

One of the explanations for blushing is that it occurs as the result of a person’s unconscious desire to “exhibit” oneself and attract attention, while social norms do not allow it. This is called repressed exhibitionism.

Q: How did Thomas Henry Burgess explain blushing?

Burgess offered one of the logical explanations for blushing: it is a sign to other people that we recognize that we have violated an important social or moral rule.

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