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.

Stand up for Shyness

I recently appeared in the BBC television programme ‘Stand up for Shyness’, starring Rhod Gilbert. The programme was made by BBC Wales and explores Rhod’s shyness.  The first half concerns his shyness. I discussed research into shyness with him for about an hour and I make a brief appearance in the programme. In the second half of the film Rhod encourages and trains three extremely shy people to become stand-up comedians for a show in a comedy club in downtown Cardiff. They all do really well and this part is quite moving to  watch. I was fortunate enough to be in the audience in the club and saw how well they did and the great reception they received.

I highly recommend the programme, which should be available on BBC iPlayer, or on You Tube.

Why do we blush?

The blush raises many questions which have proved difficult to answer. Why should an emotional response take this particular form? What use, if any, does a blush have? Why does it increase our visibility when we would least like to be seen? What are the psychological implications of the natural variation in skin pigmentation that renders the blush more or less noticeable? What is its physiological basis and how does this differ from the processes underlying, for example, anger or indignation?  Whereas signs of fear such as pallor, trembling and ‘butterflies in the stomach’ seem understandable in terms of the body’s preparation for action the utility of reddening of the face and increased skin temperature is not so evident. There are additional fundamental questions. Is the blush a unitary phenomenon or are there distinct forms? Perhaps we are misled by language. Perhaps the word blush is used in everyday language to cover more than one psychological or psychophysiological reaction and we will only understand these if we distinguish between them. Are blushing and flushing distinct phenomena or simply different names for the same thing? There are many basic questions here and scientific research is beginning to address these. It is fair to say that there is as yet no consensus on answers.

Where there does seem be consensus is that most people dislike their blushing. It is associated with mental confusion, unpleasant social predicaments and uncertainty how to behave in social situations and the blusher believes that it creates an impression of lack of poise or immaturity. The involuntary and uncontrollable nature of the blush contributes to this sense of being unable to cope. This can lead people who believe that they are prone to blush to avoid situations where they anticipate they might do; this curtails their social life, can create anxiety and can be associated with psychological problems. In psychiatric diagnosis blushing is considered to be a symptom of Social Anxiety Disorder and many sufferers have been prepared to undergo major surgery on their sympathetic nervous system in order to prevent their reddening despite the unpleasant side effects that can result from the procedure, for example compensatory sweating. Many who are anxious about blushing believe that their propensity to do so is the source of their problems rather than a symptom of them and are convinced that eradication of reddening would provide the solution. More research is needed into the experience of chronic blushers. They do not seem to differ in obvious ways on psychophysiological measures in embarrassment-inducing situations in the psychological laboratory nevertheless they may be more likely to than others to blush more frequently or  to do so in those where a blush is not usually called for and is therefore more likely to cause distress.

But are we correct to think of the blush in solely negative terms? This brings us back to the question of the functions, if any, a blush serves. Bodily reactions that give rise to unpleasant experiences can nevertheless have vital protective purposes, for example in the case of fear or pain. To show that you are frightened or in pain can bring people to your assistance. Social psychologists argue that embarrassment – which is a common trigger of a blush – is useful. It is useful for society in proving a relatively painless means of ensuring that we adhere to social norms; the fear of embarrassment keeps us in line most of the time. It is helpful in specific social encounters by enabling participants to overcome temporary difficulties that might otherwise disrupt or dissolve relationships. It is helpful for individuals by indicating to others their acknowledgement of social norms and their willingness to adhere to them, and hence their acceptability to the group. From this perspective, if there was no embarrassment there would be more aggression and social rejection; the shameless, brazen, ‘unblushing’ person is not someone whose company we would necessarily seek out.  Is this where the functions of the blush are to be found? When someone gets something wrong, perhaps by saying something that is unintentionally offensive or by being in the wrong place at the wrong time, an apology often is sufficient to diffuse the situation and shows that we are behaving out of character. A blush is helpful here because it is uncontrollable. We can apologise or smile without meaning it but we cannot control our blush. Hence it is an effective form of apology because it is sincere.

Psychological research shows that participants who are seen to blush after having infringed a social norm, for example by knocking over a pile of cans in a supermarket, tend to be judged less harshly than those who carry out the same action but fail to blush. A visible blush seems to enhance the observer’s impression that the individual is ashamed, embarrassed and concerned about others’ opinions and, again, its uncontrollability may contribute to this judgment. This is not always the case and a research programme undertaken by Peter de Jong and his colleagues suggests that in ambiguous circumstances where people’s motives are unclear, for example when they cannot produce a travel ticket when the collector asks for it, their blush tends to be perceived as a sign of guilt and they are not viewed positively. Clearly the social context will affect observers’ interpretations of reddening. We also blush in the absence of a transgression or mishap, particularly when something happens to suggest that something is likely to be revealed about us that we would prefer not to become known, and in these circumstances the blush might actually produce the predicament or negative judgments we fear. This might be a cost that has to be borne to preserve the social value of a blush.

Some theorists locate such observations within an evolutionary framework. Evolutionary explanations of shame regard its expression and action tendencies – gaze aversion, a shrinking posture, hiding the face, fleeing – as appeasement displays that signal to dominant individuals that the individual occupies and accepts a subordinate position in the group. Appeasement displays are common among primates and the blush might be an equivalent in humans and serve as a nonverbal form of apology and offer of remediation, all the more effective because the involuntary nature of the signal means that it cannot be feigned and hence will be judged to be sincere. We have no direct evidence on this and no indication whether the blush serves similar functions across cultures or among people with different skin complexions or pigmentation. Nevertheless, perhaps the transient unpleasantness of the blush is a price worth paying for the wider and longer-term benefits for society and indeed for the individual blusher.

Manufactured Pleasures

My book, Manufactured Pleasures: Psychological Responses to Design‘ was published in hardback and paperback editions by Manchester University Press in 1994 but it has been out of print for a while and it is quite difficult to find a copy. I have now brought out an electronic edition of the book for Kindle and is available on the Amazon web site. The text is the same, albeit with a fresh preface, and while I have omitted most  illustrations I provide links to relevant images.

Talking about art in the Big Apple: IAEA 2014

Talking about art in the Big Apple: the 23rd Biennial Congress of the International Association of Empirical Aesthetics

The conference, held at Hunter College of the City University of New York, August 22-24, is the latest of a series that dates back to 1965. The 1983 Congress was held in Cardiff in conjunction with the Psychology of the Arts Conference that I co-organised with Antony J Chapman for the Welsh Branch of this Society. The event in New York comprised some160 contributions from researchers representing 24 countries; the arts media and topics discussed included architecture, astronomical images, comics, dance, drama and acting, drawing skills, film, fine art, literature, music, photography, product and graphic design, and robotics, along with museum studies and studies of individual differences in creativity. The majority of contributors were psychologists but there was also a strong presence of philosophers, art historians and practising artists and designers.

Given the wealth of material presented it is difficult to pick out individual contributions or symposia for special attention but there were to my mind two distinctive and well-represented themes in the programme. The first was neuroaesthetics, which has offered a theoretical and methodological boost to the field of aesthetics in recent years. There were several research papers, including reports on the involvement of activity in the orbitofrontal cortex during judgements about artworks and differences within patterns of prefrontal responses between judgements of attractiveness of faces and places and between ratings for understanding as opposed to liking. Anjan Chatterjee, the President of the Association, gave a thoughtful talk on the nature of cognitive neuroscience that considered its limitations and addressed critiques of it in addition to outlining its positive contributions to aesthetics. These issues were addressed by philosophers Noel Carroll, Joerg Fingerhut and William Seeley and the art historian David Freeberg, who suggested in various ways that the cognitive neuroscience approach has much that is novel and valuable to offer the field of aesthetics. Carroll also posed the question why, from an evolutionary perspective, we should invest so many social and economic resources in the production of art and argued that we do so because art’s capacity to engender emotional contagion has proved advantageous for the formation of larger social groups. The roles of social contagion and empathy in the arts featured prominently in other presentations. More generally, I sense a continuing trend away from a simplistic ‘aesthetics from below’ – the correlation of verbal ratings with contrived geometric patterns – towards embracing a range of measures including fMRI, skin conductance and EMG, and recordings of eye and hand movements, and the construction of theories that relate psychology more fruitfully to traditional concepts of philosophical aesthetics and to the study of the richness of actual artworks.

Second, the strengths of an empirical approach were evident in the contributions of psychological theory and methodology to product design. This featured strongly across several sessions in the conference, particularly the systematic programmes brought together under the umbrella of Project UMA, led by Paul Hekkert of Delft University of Technology and involving colleagues from Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne and research partners elsewhere including from Cambridge University. Their studies encompassed a range of products from USB sticks to furniture and watches to automobiles, and investigated tactile as well as visual appreciation of objects.

In my own contribution I discussed the blush as it has been treated in the field of literary criticism, which provides a rich source of insight for the study of emotion more general). I focused on analysis of the blush in the fiction of Jane Austen with the aim of asking what can be learnt about the phenomenon from studying her novels and whether her insights have implications for scientific research. Blushing has figured significantly in her fiction: ‘I identified three themes in literary analysis and related each of these to research in the psychology of blushing: the blush has no single meaning and can be ambiguous; it is a sign of modesty; it is essentially sexual in nature. I discussed each in turn before analysing specific examples of blushing from Austen’s work.

Overall, the conference was highly stimulating and it was often difficult to choose from among the parallel sessions. One disappointment over the many years I have been attending these congresses has been the relatively few contributions from British psychologists even though one of the ‘presiding spirits’ of the Association remains Daniel Berlyne who, while based in Toronto for much of his career, was born in Manchester, educated at Cambridge and was a Fellow of the British Psychological Society. Hans Eysenck also made significant contributions to experimental aesthetics. It might be thought that the study of the arts is a fringe activity within psychology, perhaps a topic to turn to when the serious work is done, and few researchers can make an academic career with this as their primary specialism. Yet the arts make vital contributions to life, witness, to take only a few illustrations,  the Edinburgh Festival, Glastonbury, the Eisteddfod, Notting Hill Carnival, the Proms and Melas and countless arts festivals and events across the country, not to mention the prominence of rock and pop music, the popularity of major exhibitions at the National Gallery, Tate, and elsewhere, the national drama companies, Dr Who, the quality of television acting and production, the international successes of architects and fashion designers, the large readership for fiction, biography and history, and on and on.

Ten of the presentations to the New York Congress involved at least one author with a British affiliation, which is encouraging, and the representation may be greater when the 24th Congress takes place in Vienna in 2016 where perhaps more British psychologists will present their research.

My contribution is published in the conference proceedings.

Crozier, W. R. (2014). The blush in fiction and psychological research. In Kozbelt, A. (Ed.), Proceedings of the Twenty-third Biennial Congress of the International Association of Empirical Aesthetics, New York, International Association of Empirical Aesthetics, pp. 144-147. ISBN 978-0-692-29396-6.

Ray Crozier

February 2015


The psychological significance of the blush

The Psychological Significance of the Blush, edited by W. Ray Crozier and Peter J. de Jong was published by Cambridge University Press in UK and Europe on 29 November 2012. International editions including in USA and Canada will be published in early 2013. Our book comprises a set of original chapters specially written for it by leading international researchers into blushing, rosacea, embarrassment, shyness, social anxiety, psychological therapies for the treatment of fear of blushing, and colour signals in different species. Additional details can be found on the Cambridge University Press website. This includes full list of contents, details of the contributing authors and an excerpt from the introductory chapter.


Hello from Ray CrozierI am constructing this site with the aim of providing information about my research and publications in the psychology of shyness, blushing and embarrassment. I hope this will be useful to anyone who is interested in these fascinating topics, including researchers, teachers, graduate students and undergraduates. I hope too it will be a valuable source of information to everyone who is anxious about their shyness and blushing.