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Blushing helps in being thought nice and reliable

29 September 2009

Turning up far too late for an important appointment, discovering at a party that you’re wearing the same outfit as the hostess, even holding a presentation for a large group of people – these are all situations which make many people blush furiously. But is it really so bad to have your face turn red? No, discovered Corine Dijk. People who blush are often considered to be nicer and more reliable than people who don’t. She will be awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen on 8 October.

‘In some cases it’s absolutely correct to blush’, states Dijk. This applies in particular to social faux pas. ‘If you’ve stolen something and are caught in the act, for example. Or if you fart audibly in a lift. People who then blush are considered to be more sympathetic than those who don’t. If you blush, people have the idea that you are embarrassed.’

Reliable

‘It is easy to say that you trust someone who blushes more', says Dijk, ‘but do we also follow that up with actions?’ She investigated this with the help of a computer game played against a virtual opponent. The game was able to measure the level of trust by the amount of money that the test subject entrusted to the opponent. Opponents who blushed were entrusted with more money than those who did not. Blushing thus indeed helps to restore trust after a moral lapse.

Genuine signal

By blushing you indicate that you are ashamed of yourself or embarrassed for making a mistake, which in turn makes people judge you more favourably. However, as well as blushing increasing the impression that someone is ashamed of themselves or embarrassed, it’s also probable that blushing has an extra communicative value, thinks Dijk. After all, blushing cannot be faked, for example in situations where it would suit you to act as if you are ashamed. As a result it is a more reliable signal than other expressions of shame or embarrassment, such as casting down your eyes or looking away.

Fear of blushing

People who regularly blush do not usually experience this as a positive thing. They are scared of being judged negatively due to their red cheeks. And because it is experienced as bothersome, the fear of blushing increases. Dijk: ‘What is remarkable is that people who are afraid of blushing do not necessarily blush more often or more fierily. This has been tested by getting people to do something embarrassing, for example having to sing something in front of a camera. People who are afraid of blushing expect to blush in such situations. People without this fear have a much lower expectation. However, if you measure the blood flow to their cheeks there turns out to be no difference at all. People who are scared of blushing overestimate the chances of blushing while people without underestimate it.’

More blushing in public

Although people also blush when they are alone, an audience definitely plays a role. The more people who witness an embarrassing moment, the redder the blush. Dijk: ‘If you’ve really misbehaved in the pub you could wake up the following morning and blush furiously at the thought of all the people who saw you like that. If you cycled into the ditch in the same drunken state but no-one saw you, you will blush much less when remembering that moment.’

Cognitive problem

The fear of blushing is mainly a cognitive problem, states Dijk. ‘The negative feeling makes the actual blushing much worse. When you think help, I’m going to blush, you will blush. People who are frightened of dogs meet just as many dogs as other people. The only difference is that they are scared that the dog will bite. It’s the same with blushing. People are afraid of blushing because they have the idea that that will have negative consequences.’ Although this is a very deep-rooted conviction, it can be tackled by therapy. ‘For example by training the attention not to dwell on blushing.’ 

Curriculum vitae

Corine Dijk (Veendam, 1978) studied Psychology in Groningen and conducted her PhD research at the Department of Clinical Psychology, Experimental Psychopathology section, of the University of Groningen. Her supervisors at the Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences were Prof. P.J. de Jong and Prof. M.L. Peters. The title of her thesis is ‘To Blush or Not to Blush’. Dijk is currently a lecturer in clinical psychology at the University of Amsterdam.

Note for the press

For more information: Corine Dijk, tel 020-7718855, e-mail: k.f.l.dijk@uva.nl

Last modified:15 September 2017 3.27 p.m.

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