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«Blushing may signify guilt de Jong, P.J.; Peters, M.L.; de Cremer, D. Published in: Motivation and Emotion Publication date: 2003 Link to publication ...»

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Blushing may signify guilt

de Jong, P.J.; Peters, M.L.; de Cremer, D.

Published in:

Motivation and Emotion

Publication date:


Link to publication

Citation for published version (APA):

de Jong, P. J., Peters, M. L., & De Cremer, D. (2003). Blushing may signify guilt: Revealing effects of blushing in

ambiguous social situations. Motivation and Emotion, 27(3), 225-249.

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Download date: 13. nov. 2016 Motivation and Emotion, Vol. 27, No. 3, September 2003 ( C 2003) Blushing May Signify Guilt: Revealing Effects of Blushing in Ambiguous Social Situations1 Peter J. de Jong,2,5 Madelon L. Peters,3 and David De Cremer4 Although blushing after a social infraction can function as a remedial gesture, people generally consider blushing as an undesirable response. To address this ap- parent inconsistency, we tested the idea that blushing has remedial properties after clear-cut antecedent behaviors, but can undermine the actor’s image in ambigu- ous situations. In Experiment 1, participants (N = 49) read vignettes referring to prototypical mishaps, transgressions, and ambiguous situations. In Experiment 2 (N = 58), we specifically varied the actor’s intentionality while keeping the actor’s behavior constant. In support of its alleged face-saving properties, blushing had remedial effects after obvious mishaps and voluntary transgressions. However, in ambiguous social situations and after transgressions that are ambiguous with respect to the actor’s intentionality, blushing undermined the actor’s trustworthi- ness.

KEY WORDS: blushing; trustworthiness; guilt; appeasement; embarrassment.

There is increasing evidence that displays of shame and embarrassment have face- saving qualities. Publicly conveying embarrassment or shame would signify the actor’s recognition that she/he has committed a social or moral infraction and sin- cerely regrets it (e.g., Keltner & Buswell, 1997; Semin & Manstead, 1982). In 1 We are grateful to Monique Nijsen and Annie Raven for their assistance during the data acquisition and to professor Gerard van Breukelen and Erik Schouten for their statistical advice. The third author was supported by a fellowship of the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO, Grant No. 016.005.019).

2 Department of Clinical and Developmental Psychology, Section Experimental Psychopathology Groningen, University of Groningen, The Netherlands.

3 Department of Medical, Clinical, and Experimental Psychology, Maastricht University, Maastricht, The Netherlands.

4 Department of Experimental Psychology, Maastricht University, Maastricht, The Netherlands.

5 Address all correspondence to Peter J. de Jong, Department of Clinical and Developmental Psychology, Section Experimental Psychopathology, University of Groningen, Grote Kruisstraat 2/1, 9712 TS Groningen, The Netherlands; e-mail: p.j.de.jong@ppsw.Rug.NL.


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its turn, this submissive nonverbal apology may mitigate the negative social impression and evoke reconciliation-related behavior in the observers (e.g., Tangney, Miller, Flicker, & Barlow, 1996). In support of the implied instrumental value of displaying shame or embarrassment, it has been shown that people who have suffered a self-presentational predicament were motivated to convey their emotional state in order to repair their public images (Leary, Landel, & Patton, 1996;

Experiment 2).

Because blushing is a salient concomitant of both shame and embarrassment (e.g., Shields, Mallory, & Simon, 1990), several authors have argued that blushing may share appeasement-related properties with other expressions of embarrassment and shame (e.g., Cutlip & Leary, 1993). It has even been speculated that blushing has relatively strong remedial effects (de Waal, 1995), because in contrast to most verbal and nonverbal expressions of shame and embarrassment (e.g., posture, facial expression, casting down eyes, gazing away), blushing cannot be intentionally elicited. This characteristic of the blush prevents blushing from being instrumentally used (for instance when it would be efficient to pretend shame or embarrassment), which, in turn, may serve to stress the actor’s sincerity in displaying shame or embarrassment (Castelfranchi & Poggi, 1990).

In a first attempt to empirically document the idea that social blushing, indeed, serves a remedial function, we presented participants with a series of vignettes which described incidents that took place in a shop (cf. Semin & Manstead, 1982).

In line with the idea that blushing serves as a remedial gesture, participants rated the blushing actors much more favorably on personality dimensions that are related to trustworthiness than their nonblushing counterparts (de Jong, 1999; Experiment 1 and 2). These remedial effects of blushing were even more pronounced than those of motoric signs of shame (e.g., glancing around shamefully), perhaps because typically a blush cannot be voluntarily produced.

To extend these findings to more realistic, in vivo circumstances, we recently carried out a study that was designed to test whether similar remedial effects can also be found in the context of real-time interactions (de Jong, Peters, De Cremer, & Vranken, 2002). More specifically, we investigated the functional properties of blushing in the context of a prisoner’s dilemma game (PDG). In a PDG each individual’s payoff is dependent on the choices (defect vs. cooperate) both participants make throughout the task. In a typical “game” one’s personal outcomes are best served by defecting, whereas maximizing the joint outcomes requires that both participants cooperate (thus cooperation is the normative choice). Participants in our PDG study were individuals sharing the important normative social goal of cooperation (i.e., prosocials; see for a review van Lange, 2000). Yet, for each pair, one individual was instructed to select the nonhabitual cheat-option on a predefined target trial. As expected (e.g., Castelfranchi & Poggi, 1990), the “cheaters” showed a strong blush on the target trial (physiologically and subjectively). Yet, unexpectedly, there was a negative relationship between the observed blush intensity and Revealing Effects of Blushing 227 the trustworthiness attributed to the defectors. In other words, blushing was found to have adverse rather than remedial effects.

Several testable explanations can be put forward to explain this apparent inconsistency. First, the vignette study concerned a mild mishap, whereas defecting in the PDG study was primed as being an immoral act. Hence, one explanation for the discrepancy between the two studies might be that blushing is only effective in modifying people’s judgments in the context of mild infractions. Relatedly, the mishaps that were described in the vignettes occurred seemingly involuntarily, whereas selecting the defect option in a PDG is obviously a voluntary act. It seems reasonable to argue that under such circumstances it requires more than nonverbal communication to restore what one has done wrong (cf. Keltner, 1995). Third, in all previous studies showing a remedial effect of displays of embarrassment (e.g., de Jong, 1999; Semin & Manstead, 1982) or shame (e.g., Keltner, Young, & Buswell, 1997), the participants who observed and evaluated the actors after a social/moral infraction were not directly involved in the pertinent social interaction.

That is, the actors themselves or a third party were the “victims” of the transgression, but never the evaluating participant (as was the case in the PDG study).

Because hedonic relevance of the actor’s behavior leads an observer to make internal rather than external attributions for this behavior (e.g., Jones & Davis, 1965), it might well be that being the victim of a transgression may give rise to the interpretation that the transgression reflects an habitual tendency of the actor, rather than a coincidence of situational factors. When a transgression is predominantly attributed to the actor’s dispositions, this may undermine the otherwise remedial properties of blushing.

Perhaps most importantly, it might be that the “victims” in the PDG study used the blush response of the defector to deduce and interpret the “cheater’s” motive. Note that in contrast to previous studies, the transgression involved in the PDG study was ambiguous with respect to the perpetrators’ intentionality. For example, selecting the “defect” option on the target trial could be interpreted as innocent “playful behavior” (e.g., to prevent the experiment from getting boring), but also as an intentional (and thus unfair) act to maximize the outcomes for the self at the expense of the interdependent others. Unexpected events, such as the interdependent other’s choice to defect, are among the antecedent cues that elicit causal search (Weiner, 1985). In their causal interpretation of the transgressor’s behavior, the “victims” are likely to overemphasize the role of the actor’s negative dispositions and to underemphasize the influence of situational factors (fundamental attribution error; Ross, 1977). Because of the pervasive logical fallacy of “affirmation of the consequent” (Evans, Newstead, & Byrne, 1993) (‘if a person does something undesirable, then that person will blush; the person blushes, thus the person must have done something undesirable’; cf. Arntz, Rauner, & van den Hout, 1995), the observers might have interpreted blushing in the present context (i.e., in the absence of a clear-cut antecedent of the blush response) as a further 228 de Jong, Peters, and De Cremer confirmation of the undesirable (immoral) motives behind the actor’s behavior. In other words, the blush may have led observers to interpret the ambiguous behavior as reflecting an intentional (and thus unfair) act, rather than as innocent playing around, and the higher levels of attributed intentionality are likely to have resulted in less “social affection” (Semin, 1982). Following this line of reasoning, blushing in ambiguous situations has revealing rather than appeasing effects.

If so, this implies that the communicative properties of blushing are contextdependent. In case of unambiguous antecedent behaviors, displaying a blush would signify the individual’s recognition that she/he has committed a social/moral infraction and sincerely regrets it (cf. Goffman, 1967), whereas in the absence of such unambiguous antecedent behaviors, blushing may be typically interpreted as revealing the true (defecting/immoral) nature of these antecedent behaviors (cf.

“true innocence doesn’t need a blush”). In other words, in the absence of a clear-cut mishap/transgression, observers may (erroneously) interpret the blush (and other signs of embarrassment or shame) as evidence that the blusher has behaved in an inappropriate manner. Accordingly, in the context of an obvious mishap or transgression, blushing will have face-saving qualities, whereas in the absence of such an obvious predicament, blushing will have the opposite effect.


As a first step to test the validity of the hypothesis that the communicative value of the blush is context-dependent, we presented participants with a series of vignettes some of which referred to apparently involuntary mishaps, some to more serious, seemingly voluntary moral transgressions, and some to ambiguous situations that could be interpreted as a transgression, but also as a coincidence.

Following the foregoing analysis, we anticipated that in the context of ambiguous social situations blushing would typically have revealing rather than appeasing effects, whereas in the context of clear-cut mishaps or voluntary transgressions we expected blushing typically to serve a remedial function (e.g., de Jong, 1999).

As a subsidiary issue we also explored the influence of the observers’ perspective (victim vs. by-stander) on the observers’ evaluation of the actor. More specifically, we investigated whether being the victim of a transgression of some kind (i.e., hedonic relevance) acts to undermine the remedial properties of the blush.

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Participants were 49 female undergraduates from Maastricht University. They participated on a voluntary basis. In return for their participation they received a small gift (in natura). Mean age was 19.1 years (range = 18–27 years).

Revealing Effects of Blushing 229

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We used a paper and pencil task which consisted of a series of vignettes, each followed by a number of 100-mm visual analogue scales (VASs). There were three categories of vignettes. One category consisted of vignettes describing clear-cut mishaps; one consisted of obvious transgressions; and one consisted of vignettes describing ambiguous situations that could be interpreted as an intentional transgression but not necessarily so (see Appendix A for examples). In half of the vignettes, the participants were described as being the victim of the mishap/transgression, whereas in the other half of the vignettes participants observed the incident, in which another person was the victim. Finally, half of the vignettes explicitly mentioned that the actors displayed a blush response following the incident, whereas in the other half of the vignettes this particular information was omitted. Thus the design was a 3 Category (mishap vs. transgression vs. ambiguous) × 2 Victim (self vs. other) × 2 Actor’s Response (blush vs. no blush) within subjects design, allowing for 12 different types of vignettes.

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