Cute or Shameful: Why Humans Blush

Researchers share findings on why some people blush, and our reactions to it.

June 3, 2009— -- For a "blusher," the uncontrollable reaction can seem like nature's cruel trick on a person who's already self-conscious. But researchers who've studied blushing from all angles agree that in most situations blushing can serve a beneficial social purpose.

"It's like a rush. It's like a tide coming in. I can feel the temperature in my cheeks get warm," said Sherry Inskeep, of Westerville, Ohio. "Blushing is a curse. It has negatively impacted my life for as long as I can remember."

Inskeep wasn't blushing as a baby, but according to researcher Dr. Michael Lewis, it's likely that she could have been blushing at a very young age from the time she was able to feel embarrassed.

"At about 18 months children come to have a mental representation of themselves, we know they know that because of their actions in front of a mirror," said Lewis, who is a professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Brunswick, N.J.

Lewis said verbal cues, such as using the words "me" and "mine" also show young children that they are aware and a unique being.

It's once the children have that self-awareness between 15 months to 2 years of age, Lewis said, the blushing can begin.

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"Children may blush if you become the object of attention, that is people pay attention to you both positively -- if they ask you to perform, if they ask you to do a little dance, none of these are really because you are bad," he said.

Although humans start out blushing only when they are the center of attention, Lewis says by school-age children start to blush more during social situations, similar to adults.

"Some people are embarrassed but don't blush," said Lewis. But all researchers agree embarrassment is the first trigger for a blush.

Depending on the social situation that triggers them; self-proclaimed "blushers" say turning beet red can seriously interfere with their lives.

"Over the years I have tried to contain it, find an off button for it, especially for job interviews. I walk in, sit down, they look at me and immediately I can feel my face going red before they can even say the first word. All I can think about is "not now, not now, oh no why me"!," Lisa Jones of Pensacola, Fla. wrote to "This is more entertaining for them than for me, some have even busted out laughing and ask me why am I blushing, they haven't asked me anything embarrassing yet."

Ellen Davis, of Tallahassee, Fla., said she can't help but blush at work.

What Blushing Does in Social Circles

"When sitting in a meeting and a question is asked of me, I tend to turn red and it gets brighter when people start to notice it," said Davis.

Although most "blushers" don't like this tendency, researchers say it can help in most social situations.

"Although people don't like to blush, my sense is that it's not a bad thing," said Mark Leary, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University. "It may have a social function."

Leary has studied many aspects of blushing, and has found that sometimes others can induce blushing by telling a person in an awkward situation that they are turning red, even if they aren't.

"Even though they're saying 'no I'm not' they would start blushing," he said.

Leary has also studied what onlookers do while the blushing person stares at the ground beet red. For the most part, people begin to blush when they are watched and, accordingly, Leary found that adults onlookers (not children) naturally tend to accommodate the person who's blushing.

"People have difficulty staring at or paying attention to another person who's blushing. This is a natural response," said Leary. "You have to be un-empathetic to continue to stare at somebody who's falling apart and blushing."

Professor Rowland Miller, who researches embarrassment at Sam Houston State University, in Huntsville, Texas, agreed that in most situations, a blush can be to a person's social advantage.

"Embarrassment is really tough in elementary school, but that's not true among adults," said Miller. "When you do something stupid and you look embarrassed other adults will like you better than if you've looked cool, and calm."

However when people blush without a visible taboo, such as in meetings or business dealings, Miller said it can sometimes be detrimental to the "blusher."

"Let's say you blush in the absence of some predicament, that might indicate guilty knowledge and people wonder why you are blushing," said Miller.

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