When Do We Blush?
There appear to be four social triggers that result in blushing: a) a threat to public identity; 2) praise or public attention 3) scrutiny, and oddly enough, 4) accusations of blushing. This last trigger is especially fascinating: just telling a person that they are blushing - even when they are not - can trigger a blush.
Blushing is not only triggered by certain social situations; it also triggers other responses in those who blush. The most commonly associated behaviors are averting the gaze and smiling. Although gaze aversion is a universal feature of embarrassment, its frequency differs across cultures: in the United kingdom 41% report averting their eyes when they are embarrassed, whereas only 8% of Italians report doing so. Smiling is also a common response. Up to a third of those who are embarrassed display a "nervous" or "silly grin."
Why Do We Blush?
We blush when we are embarrassed, but why should this physiological response occur? The blood vessels in the face (and the other areas that blush) seem to differ structurally from other vessels, and so respond in a unique way. But just how they do so, and why, remains a physiological mystery. Here's the surgeon Atul Gawande's explanation, from the pages of The New Yorker.
Why we have such a reflex is perplexing. One theory is that the blush exists to show embarrassment, just as the smile exists to show happiness. This would explain why the reaction appears only in the visible regions of the body (the face, the neck, and the upper chest). But then why do dark-skinned people blush? Surveys find that nearly everyone blushes, regardless of skin color, despite the fact that in many people it is nearly invisible. And you don’t need to turn red in order for people to recognize that you’re embarrassed. Studies show that people detect embarrassment before you blush. Apparently, blushing takes between fifteen and twenty seconds to reach its peak, yet most people need less than five seconds to recognize that someone is embarrassed—they pick it up from the almost immediate shift in gaze, usually down and to the left, or from the sheepish, self-conscious grin that follows a half second to a second later. So there’s reason to doubt that the purpose of blushing is entirely expressive.
There is, however, an alternative view held by a growing number of scientists. The effect of intensifying embarrassment may not be incidental; perhaps that is what blushing is for. The notion isn’t as absurd as it sounds. People may hate being embarrassed and strive not to show it when they are, but embarrassment serves an important good. For, unlike sadness or anger or even love, it is fundamentally a moral emotion. Arising from sensitivity to what others think, embarrassment provides painful notice that one has crossed certain bounds while at the same time providing others with a kind of apology. It keeps us in good standing in the world. And if blushing serves to heighten such sensitivity this may be to one’s ultimate advantage.
Blushing and Crossing Boundaries
So blushing may confer an advantage. It keeps us in good social standing, insuring that we do not step outside of the bounds of accepted behavior. This notion is supported by some recent work (published more than a decade after Gawande's 2001 article) that supports this notion of blushing having a social utility. Those who blush frequently showed a positive association between blushing and shame. These frequent blushers generally behaved less dominantly and more submissively. Writing in the journal Emotion in 2011 (yes, that really is the name of this academic journal), three Dutch psychologists demonstrated that blushing after a social transgression serves a remedial function. In their (highly experimental lab) work on human volunteers, blushers were judged more positively and were perceived as more trustworthy than their non-blushing counterparts.
Still, helpful as it may be to regain the trust of others, social embarrassment can come at a huge cost - including the suicide of those who have been embarrassed. As we have seen, in the Talmud embarrassing another person is called הלבנת פני חבר - literally translated as "making the face of another turn white." This is of course quite the opposite of what actually occurs when a person blushes, and seems to suggest another, deeper level of embarrassment, (though it's not something discussed in the scientific literature). According to the Talmud, the person is so embarrassed that the blood drains from his face, causing him to turn pale. This raises an interesting question: if blushing serves an important social function - reminding a person that he has violated rules which should be held sacred - why does the Talmud tell us to to avoid causing embarrassment? Haven't they been caught in the act of violating our rules? King David transgressed religious boundaries and committed a capital offense. When called out on this, he felt deeply ashamed and embarrassed. But isn't that precisely how he should have felt? As Gawande wrote: "...embarrassment provides painful notice that one has crossed certain bounds while at the same time providing others with a kind of apology. It keeps us in good standing in the world."
In our discourse we have three words that have nuanced but important differences. Here is what the Oxford English Dictionary has to say:
Embarrass The archaic use of this word meant to hamper or impede. Today we use it to mean to cause someone to feel awkward, self-conscious, or ashamed.
Shame The painful emotion arising from the consciousness of something dishonoring, ridiculous or indecorous in one's own conduct. Or of being in a situation which offends one's sense of modesty or decency.
Humiliate To make low or humble in position, condition or feeling.
To describe each of these emotions, the Talmud uses only a single term, להלבין פני חבר. It is translated into English in various ways. The Artscroll and Soncino translations use the term shame whereas the Koren Talmud translates it as humiliation. In modern Hebrew each of these three emotions has its own word. Embarrassment is מבוכה; shame is בושה, and humiliation is השפלה.
The three terms are often used interchangeably, but humiliation is perhaps the harshest of them. To feel embarrassed in public seems to be less of a big deal than to feel humiliated in public, although both are surely unpleasant. The best way to translate what King David felt is humiliation. And it is to avoid humiliating others the Talmud takes its extreme position: "It is better to jump into a fiery furnace than to humiliate another in public."
DO MONKEYS FEEL SHAME?
In a 2006 paper, a group of researchers demonstrated that primate color vision has been selected to discriminate changes in skin color - those changes (like blushing) that give useful information about the emotional state of another. But does this mean that non-human primates feel shame? That's a harder question.
Frans De Waal directs the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University in Atlanta. In his wonderful book The Bonobo and the Atheist (guess which of these he is), De Waal discusses emotional control among primates - and in particular, the role of shame. When a human feels shame after a transgression, "we lower our face, avoid the gaze of others, slump our shoulders, bend our knees, and generally look diminished in stature...We feel ashamed and hide our face behind our hands or "want to sink into the ground." This is rather like the submissive displays made by other primates: "Chimpanzees crawl in the dust for their leader, lower their body so as to look up at him or turn their rump towards tim to appear unthreatening...shame reflects awareness that one has upset others, who need to be appeased."
Only humans blush, De Waal writes, and he doesn't know of "any instant face reddening in other primates."
Blushing is an evolutionary mystery... The only advantage of blushing that I can imagine is that it tells others that you are aware of how your actions affect them. This fosters trust. We prefer people whose emotions we can read from their faces over those who never show the slightest hint of shame or guilt. That we evolved an honest signal to communicate unease about rule violations says something profound about our species. (The Bonobo and the Atheist, 155.)
And then De Wall makes a remarkable observation:
Blushing is part of the same evolutionary package that gave us morality.
So it turns out that evolutionary biologists, psychologists, and social scientists, while they may disagree on some details, agree on one feature of the emotion of shame. It is a vital emotion for any ethically sound society. This is echoed in Nedarim, the tractate we learned a couple of years ago:
נדרים כ, א
תניא "בעבור תהיה יראתו על פניכם" זו בושה "לבלתי תחטאו" מלמד שהבושה מביאה לידי יראת חטא מיכן אמרו סימן יפה באדם שהוא ביישן. אחרים אומרים כל אדם המתבייש לא במהרה הוא חוטא, ומי שאין לו בושת פנים בידוע שלא עמדו אבותיו על הר סיני
It was taught in a Baraisa: "So that the awe of Him will be on your faces" (Ex. 20:17). This refers to the characteristic of being susceptible to shame [since bushing is that which is noted "on your faces". The verse continues] "So that you will not sin". This teaches that shame leads to the fear of sin. From this [teaching] they said it is a good sign for a person to be [easily] embarrassed. Others said that any person who feels embarrassed will not quickly sin. And if a person is not [the kind of person who is] embarrassed - it is known that his ancestors did not stand and Mount Sinai.