Literature and the Social Emotions

On June 22, 2018 I attended a terrific one-day conference in Bristol University with the theme of literature and the social emotions. I presented a keynote paper with the title A reason to blush: Insights from fiction. Here is the Abstract of the paper.

The blush is a puzzler that occupies an uncertain place in the scientific study of the emotions. In Darwin’s seminal book on the expression of emotions it is unique as an expression in being awarded its own chapter. A fleeting, uncontrollable phenomenon, it is challenging to study by conventional means. Dictionaries and a majority of psychological theories define it in terms of an expression of embarrassment but this is unsatisfactory in several respects: It also accompanies shame and shyness; one can be embarrassed without necessarily blushing; reddening of the face accompanies anger; embarrassment in its contemporary sense is a relatively recent emotion. Furthermore, theorizing starts with common sense notions of what constitutes a blush rather than defining in terms of a distinctive psychophysiological pattern or process. Where there is consensus is that blushing is an expression of a ‘social emotion’ and that the self is involved: embarrassment and shame are ‘self-conscious emotions’.

My own approach has been to investigate the circumstances in which the blush is described in written accounts, whether provided by participants in my research or through search of literary sources. In the latter method I have concentrated on individual writers, particularly Jane Austen, or drawn upon a broad sample of novelists across various periods. Participants’ recollections of incidents are replete with instances of the faux pas, errors and misunderstandings in social settings that characterize embarrassment whereas literary sources also encompass more nuanced circumstances. A recurrent theme in these descriptions is the exposure of aspects of the self that the blusher prefers not be known and this can be associated with the experience of shame. The erotic dimension of the blush is another recurrent theme that only figures in social psychological accounts when it a cause of embarrassment. I provide illustrative examples and discuss the insights that can be gleaned from literary texts and the status of fictional accounts as sources of evidence.