In what sounds like a rather unpleasant experience, participants who were given false feedback that they were blushing, subsequently blushed more and anticipated being negatively judged by the people they were conversing with. The finding could help explain why some shy people fall into a vicious circle of fearing blushing, feeling that they are blushing more than they are, and ultimately fearing social situations because of it.
Corine Dijk and colleagues recruited one hundred undergrads who'd been selected from a larger pool based on their scores on a blushing questionnaire: 50 of them were highly fearful of blushing whereas the other 50 had little or no fear of blushing.
The participants' task was to make conversation for five minutes with two strangers. Throughout, the participants were wired up to physiological measures of their facial skin temperature and colour. Crucially, half of them were given feedback, via a vibrating device on their finger, about how much they were blushing. They thought the feedback was accurate, but really it was fixed in advance. The research assistants didn't know which students were in which condition.
The main findings were that giving the participants false feedback that they were blushing actually caused them to blush more, and led them to think they'd be more negatively rated by the students they had to make conversation with. This was true for both groups of participants - those scared of blushing and those not fearful of blushing.
However, there was an important distinction between the two participant groups: the blushing-phobic participants overestimated how much they were blushing far more than the non-phobic participants. This could help explain why blushing phobics are more likely to find themselves caught in an uncomfortable cycle of self-consciousness and negative social expectations.
A surprise finding was that participants given false blushing feedback were rated by the research assistants as less likeable than the control participants, although these negative ratings were not as bad as the participants thought they would be.
The researchers said their findings had a number of clinical implications. First of all, it might help to educate people that blushing doesn't lead to evaluations that are as bad as they think they will be. Secondly, the finding that the phobic and non-phobic participants given false blush feedback were rated poorly by the research assistants suggests that (blush phobic or not) the awareness that we're blushing can lead us to behave awkwardly, perhaps because we become overly self-conscious. 'Accordingly, blushing-fearfuls may be helped with training that aims to continue normal behaviour while blushing,' the researchers said.
Dijk, C., Voncken, M., & de Jong, P. (2009). I blush, therefore I will be judged negatively: influence of false blush feedback on anticipated others’ judgments and facial coloration in high and low blushing-fearfuls. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 47 (7), 541-547 DOI: 10.1016/j.brat.2009.03.005