As if splitting a pair of pants, telling a transparent lie or mispronouncing the word “epitome” weren’t humiliation enough, nature has provided humans, especially the fair-skinned kind, with a built-in scarlet letter. Jane Austen heroines may pink endearingly at a subtle breach in manners; millions more glow like a lava lamp in what feels like a public disrobing: the face, suddenly buck-naked.
People who become severely anxious in social situations often swear that the blush itself is the source of their problems, not a symptom. Doctors may even perform surgery — severing a portion of the sympathetic nerve chain, which runs down the back — to take the red out.
Yet even this operation usually doesn’t short-circuit the system entirely, because a blush is far more than a stigmata of embarrassment. It is a crucial signal in social interactions — one that functions more often to smooth over betrayals and blunders than to amplify them.
In a series of recent studies, psychologists have found that reddening cheeks soften others’ judgments of bad or clumsy behavior, and help to strengthen social bonds rather that strain them. If nothing else, the new findings should take some of the personal sting out of the facial fire shower when it inevitably hits.
“We are this hypersocial species that settles conflicts and misunderstandings face to face, and we need a way to repair daily betrayals and transgressions quickly,” said Dacher Keltner, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of “Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life” (Norton, 2009). “A blush comes online in two or three seconds and says, ‘I care; I know I violated the social contract.’ ”