Most people try to hide their blushes when they're embarrassed. Some have even gone so far as to undergo a surgical procedure that prevents their face from blushing. But new research suggests that rather than being something we should cover up, a blush actually serves an important role in smoothing social interactions.
In a recent study, published in the journal Emotion, researchers from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands had participants read vignettes about various social transgressions—driving away after a car crash or cheating on an exam, for example—and mishaps such as spilling coffee on someone or steering a bike into the bushes.
The vignette was followed by a picture of a face—ostensibly the person from the story—with one of four types of display: a neutral expression with or without a blush, and an expression of shame or embarrassment with or without a blush. Participants were then asked to rate how favorably they felt toward the person in the picture.
The results showed that blushing people were judged more favorably than non-blushers, regardless of the other emotional cues on their face. In addition, compared with non-blushing faces, participants more quickly understood when blushing faces were conveying shame or embarrassment.
The researchers argue that blushing signals a sincere acknowledgement of wrongdoing, and communicates to others that we won't make the same mistake again. As result, they conclude, blushing might prevent people from being socially excluded after they've committed some kind of transgression.
"Although most people consider blushing to be an undesirable response," they write, "our results showed that in the context of transgressions and mishaps, blushing is a helpful bodily signal with face-saving properties."
For more on the social importance of blushing and embarrassment, check out Greater Good Executive Editor Dacher Keltner's May essay, "Born to Blush."