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Personal Health : At First Blush : A New Theory Suggests the Urge to Appease Inspires This Distinctly Human Physiological Response

Times Medical Writer

I used to be public relations director for a theater. It was opening press night and the entire audience was packed.... I was called to the stage. As I was coming down the steps, I tripped. I began leaping across the steps--the way you go from one step to another. By the time I got there, I must have been going 100 m.p.h. I just remember huge gasps, sucking in of air. I think the audience was afraid I would go straight through the screen. I was just humiliated. There I was on the stage, 14 shades of red. I crawled away. I was red for three days after that.

I’m sitting here red, just thinking about it. My face is just burning up.

--Publicist, San Diego

Blushing is a peculiar business. Humans alone are blessed, or cursed, with the ability to blush. It is mysterious--a physiological fire ignited by a psychological spark. And it is social: Few of us blush in private.

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Yet there is little agreement on the meaning of blushing. Why does it happen and what does it signify? Freudians see a repressed libido and exhibitionism skulking behind a red face. Psychologists see embarrassment, a sudden loss of self-image.

Now a new theory has emerged to explain the phenomenon: A blush is a way of appeasing others, like a sheepish grin. It is an instinctive maneuver for re-ingratiating oneself with a group when one has made a faux pas (or worse) and fears ostracism by one’s peers.

“It is saying, ‘Oops, I recognize that I’ve broken a social rule,’ ” said Mark Leary, a Wake Forest University psychologist who presented his theory at the American Psychological Assn. meeting in New Orleans this month. “It’s like a nonverbal apology: I’m sorry.”

After all, blushing works--or so it seems. Displays of embarrassment can disarm on-lookers. “Empathic embarrassment,” one researcher calls it--a sympathetic chagrin so unsettling it has sent television viewers fumbling to switch off “I Love Lucy.”

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Rowland Miller, a psychologist at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Tex., believes he has measured this empathy in the electrical conductivity of people’s skin--a sign of emotional arousal that can be gauged using electrodes attached to their hands.

In one study, Miller asks a person to dance alone in a room. A lone witness looks on from behind a mirror. In interviews later, viewers report feeling embarrassed and abashed--a reaction Miller has found to correlate with changes in the conductivity of their skin.

Furthermore, displays of embarrassment can be endearing.

As evidence, Miller cites a British study. In it, viewers watched a videotape of a person accidentally knocking over a supermarket toilet-paper display. The researchers offered three alternate endings, asking the viewers how they felt about the culprit.

In the first ending, the clumsy shopper flees. In the second, the shopper, unembarrassed, calmly rebuilds the stack. In the third, the shopper looks mortified and gathers up the wreckage. According to Miller, the on-lookers felt most warmly toward the person who was obviously sheepish.

“A blush is a funny mixture of wanting to hide and at the same time to attract someone,” said Murray Bilmes, a professor at the California School of Professional Psychology in Berkeley. “Blushing is literally waving a red flag at the bull. . . . It’s a come-on.”

It starts on my chest and it goes right up my neck. But the part that gets really red is my ears. It’s really embarrassing--I’m 38 years old, I’m fairly accomplished professionally, I taught school and I still can’t get up in front of a group of people and start talking.... I also tend to blush terribly when I drink, which is, uh, alarming.

--Free-lance children’s writer, St. Paul, Minn.

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Blushing occurs when the small blood vessels that supply the skin widen, allowing an increase in blood flow. Blushers report a burning sensation in their face and often a full-body tingle. In most cases, it passes within three to five minutes.

Fair-skinned people seem to be disproportionately afflicted. Women may be, too, some observers contend. Blushing tends to peak in adolescence and decline with age--a fact some theorists attribute to a growing immunity to embarrassment.

Charles Darwin, who wrote a chapter on blushing in a book on emotions, called blushing “the most human of all expressions.” He traced it to shyness, modesty and shame--manifestations of humans’ highly developed awareness of the opinions of others.

Darwin also recognized that blushing requires a psychological trigger. It cannot be caused physically, the way tickling provokes mirth. And it is not simply involuntary, Darwin observed; trying to control it can actually make it worse.

“It is really very interesting that of all the possible things that separate animals from humans that the blush would be a distinctive thing,” said Bilmes. “Why in the world did nature elaborate this thing?”

One time one of the photographers came out with some pictures of a woman on the beach. Some were topless, and, I think, some were bottomless. He was showing them to me with some other people around, including a woman. That was really embarrassing. One of the things that leads to confusion is having a couple of different audiences around: One way to handle embarrassment is to do (a sexist joke) routine; but you don’t want to do that if women are around and you’ve been trying to pass yourself off as a feminist.

--Photographer, New York City

Psychoanalysts, in particular, see blushing as sexual. They say it results from repressed sexual excitement, surfacing in the face because of fear of castration. Or, it is exhibitionistic--an indirect way of conveying one’s erotic urges.

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Dr. Carole Lieberman, a Beverly Hills psychiatrist, offered these examples:

A woman crosses a vent at an amusement park. Her skirt flies up. She blushes. She may blush not simply because she is exposed but because she had an “inner wish” to exhibit herself, Lieberman suggests. She has gratified that wish, and that is embarrassing.

A male boss kisses a female employee on the cheek. He is thanking her for a job well done. The woman blushes, according to Lieberman, perhaps because she is reminded of her father and some unacknowledged sexual attraction between them years before.

“A person going through that situation might not know that,” said Lieberman. “Most wouldn’t. They might feel themselves blush, be overwhelmed and wonder why. They wouldn’t necessarily be aware of the childhood memories that that evokes.”

I used to worry that it was something psychological. Maybe I had some sort of hang-up from when my father left when I was 2. My mother is wonderful, but she was alone from the time I was 2. I didn’t get a lot of praise. So I wonder if it’s just an insecurity.

--Production manager,

San Diego

Existentialists have linked blushing to alienation. Jean-Paul Sartre blamed the realization that one is distinct from one’s physical being. Others cite a sense of existential unworthiness--being unmasked or exposed in public.

Psychologists link blushing to embarrassment and shame--for example, when one feels one has violated a code of conduct. Or, it may occur when one does something that undermines one’s self-image--the image one would like to present to the world.

“The moment you cut a poor figure or do something clumsy or improper, then all kinds of things happen,” said Andre Modigliani, a University of Michigan sociologist. “You immediately believe that others are now paying attention to you. You become self-conscious.”

“One of the more curious things is that people can feel embarrassed and blush even when they’ve done nothing wrong,” said Miller of Sam Houston State. “Simple conspicuousness can embarrass people. Being complimented or overpraised is a classic example.”

Yet there is something people like about being the focus of attention, experts suggest.

The striking thing about blushing, theorists say, is its implicit mixed signals: Blushers want to hide, yet the blush draws attention. As an example, Bilmes cites blushers’ reaction when someone else discloses that the blusher has a secret passion.

“Something has been exposed that they want to hide,” Bilmes said. “Yet the reaction is partly to hide it but also to confirm it. So there is that funny dialectic where you have both sides of it going. That’s a very important part of the blush.”

My father blushes. He’s in his late seventies.... He’ll blush when he feels some strong emotion that he doesn’t want to express. Like saying goodby, if he doesn’t want to say he’ll miss me. It’s like having litmus paper: You can tell how he’s feeling.

--Free-lance children’s writer

Leary, the Wayne State psychologist, suggests blushing is an “appeasement gesture"--an instinctive acknowledgment that one has done something wrong. Its purpose, he contends, is to re-endear a person to a group in the face of impending exclusion.

Leary compares blushing to nonverbal maneuvers humans share with animals--averted eyes and the sheepish grin. Primates use those instinctive gestures to avert aggression or avoid banishment, Leary says; humans use them mostly for the latter.

“I even wonder . . . if those things aren’t genetically hard-wired,” said C. R. Snyder, a professor of psychology at the University of Kansas. “Are those things built into the species to enable us to get back into the group when we break some sort of rule?”

Modigliani, the sociologist, links blushing to embarrassment, which he has come to view as “a very important mechanism of social control. . . . Because people at a certain age develop the capacity to be embarrassed, they become controllable by others.”

One experience in particular first impressed Modigliani with that fact.

He was on an airplane in the mid-1960s waiting for takeoff. When the pilot started the engine, a loud thumping noise ensued. The pilot shut off the engine and a ground crew materialized. It began working on the engine in full view of one side of the plane.

Then a disagreement erupted between the pilot and the chief mechanic. The mechanic threw up his hands and left with the crew. The pilot reboarded the plane and restarted the engine. Again, the thumping noise.

For 10 minutes, the engine warmed up. And not one passenger asked to be let off the plane.

“I’m sure they had this sense of what is appropriate to do on an airplane, and how embarrassing it would be to ask the stewardess to open the door,” remembered Modigliani. “They’d rather die than lose face.”

Modigliani paused, then added, “Embarrassment must be a very powerful thing.”

Why We Blush * Freudian: Blushing is the expression of repressed libidinal impulses, displaced to the facebecause of fear of castration. Men blush because they fear castration; women blush because they are reminded of their figurative castration.

Or, blushing is a form of exhibitionism. The superego represses all sexual impulses and the wish for incest. Those impulses are then displaced to other parts of the body, such as the face,where the superego allows exhibitionism. * Existentialists: Blushing is a response to a person’s discovery of alienation--for example, the realization that one is distinct from one’s body. It may also reflect a sense of unworthiness when one feels oneself unmasked in public. * Charles Darwin: Blushing is triggered by awareness of the attention of others, particularly their attention to one’s personal appearance. It is induced by shame, modesty and shyness. Blushing, in turn, triggers “confusion of mind.” * Psychologists: Blushing is tied closely to embarrassment, which is often linked to poor self-esteem. It occurs when one has done something that contradicts the self-image one is attempting to present to the world. Or, blushing represents an acknowledgment that one has violated a code of conduct. It is an instinctive and endearing bid ofr readmission to a social group. For gregarious humans, it is a wayof avoiding banishment as a result of a transgression. Sources: “Blushing” by Fred E. Karch in Psychoanalytic Review, 1971, and experts interviewed for the accompanying story.


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