A psychologist explains why you turn red, and what you can do to keep it under control.
Literature is full of blushing characters: Everyone from Elizabeth Bennet to Hermione Granger—heck, even the ax-wielding Annie Wilkes from Misery—occasionally blushes, and as a result, the reader tends to like them all the more. (Until, you know, that ax scene.) But what’s cute in a Jane Austen novel isn’t necessarily endearing to the shareholders at your annual company-wide meeting. ... Or is it?
“Blushing is quite unique,” says Rowland Miller, PhD, a psychology professor at Sam Houston State University who specializes in social emotions. When humans are faced with certain threats, the fight-or-flight response kicks in, and blood is diverted away from the skin, to the muscles. The opposite occurs when we blush—the blood flow increases to the skin via the veins of the upper neck, chest, and face.
So why does your autonomic nervous system want to throw you under the bus? Well, it may actually be trying to help you. “Blushing serves a useful function,” says Miller. “It’s an authentic, non-verbal apology for misbehavior.” And socially speaking, "misbehavior" has a pretty broad definition—leaving your fly unzipped or mispronouncing a word can count.
Blushing is important, Miller says, because people who convey remorse are less likely to be ostracized by their peers. “If someone misbehaves and remains calm, they aren’t as well liked,” he explains. Example: If you knocked your friend’s iPhone into a swimming pool and just shrugged your shoulders, you would likely then have one less friend.
Research supports the theory that blushing helps us: People think better of us if we turn a little red after we make a social faux pas—more so than if we don’t blush, according to one 2009 study in the journal Emotion. And a 2011 study by the same group of researchers found that people who blushed after doing something wrong were more likely to regain their partner’s trust during a subsequent task. (Interestingly, people were less likely to trust partners who expressed embarrassment by averting their gaze and suppressing a smile; that expression was perceived as amused rather than ashamed.)
“You can’t blush on command, so if you do [blush], you’re perceived to be truly remorseful,” says Miller. “You can’t be embarrassed about something if you don’t care [about it].”
Okay, you might ask, then why do I blush when I give a speech in public? One theory: Back in grade school, being singled out for good or bad behavior usually resulted in some kind of consequence, either from your peers or your teachers, says Dr. Miller. And those memories (do we ever get over 5th grade, really?) might be enough to trigger a blush as an adult, he explains.
So how do you make yourself stop blushing? It’s actually pretty hard. And, in fact, thinking about it might make it worse: One study published in the journal Behaviour Research and Therapy found that people who were told they were blushing (even if they weren’t), blushed more. “Believing that one will blush can act as a self-fulfilling prophecy,” the study authors wrote.
If you can’t psych that redness out of your cheeks, you can do the next best thing: Pretend as if it doesn’t bother you. Because really, it shouldn’t. Even though research shows that people think others look down on them for blushing, the exact opposite is true, says Miller. “Blushing is charming, and audiences judge people who are blushing more positively.” Realizing that your blushing makes you even more likeable, he says, might just be the best way to keep it under control.