The Childhood Roots of the Narcissistic Blush

Children who blush may be more narcissistic than modest, according to new study.

Posted Nov 06, 2018

If you’re a fair-skinned person, you are undoubtedly familiar with the experience of blushing. Perhaps your feelings about a person you care about become revealed before you were ready to voice them out loud. Or if someone has pointed out your accomplishments to a group of people you don’t know all that well. Or when you’re asked a tough question in an interview and you’re groping for how to answer it. You can feel the redness creep up from your neck to your cheeks, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. If your skin is not light-colored, you might still feel that you’re blushing as your face swells and turns hot. You can hide your reaction more easily than if you have light skin, but it still can cause you internal discomfort.

Traditionally, blushing is an experience associated with modesty. Heroines in Victorian novels struggle with their reddened faces, trying to hide the love they feel for the handsome lord invited to their home for a lavish dinner, due to social propriety. However, new research on the origins of blushing in childhood suggests the exact opposite, that there are people prone to blushing (or feeling their skin turn warm) who are not only less modest than average, but more likely to have narcissistic traits. Reasoning that narcissistic people are the ones to blush when praised because they feel it’s not enough to satisfy them, University of Amsterdam’s Eddie Brummelman and colleagues (2018) set out to study the narcissism-blushing relationship in 7- to 12-year-old children. Because both narcissism and blushing first become evident in this age range, Brummelman et al. believed that children would be ideal subjects to test this relationship.

According to the Dutch research team, children who are fated to become high in narcissism “feel superior to others, believe they are entitled to privileges, and crave admiration.” They expect to be lavished with inflated praise, and when their parents provide it non-stop, may become more narcissistic over time. Nature and nurture, in other words, interact to produce individuals with a grandiose sense of self-esteem and expectation of constant admiration. As Brummelman goes on to note, however, “Reality does not provide narcissistic children with a continuous supply of inflated praise.” If they’re criticized, they lash out angrily and aggressively. All of this makes perfect sense. What’s counterintuitive, though, is the reaction these narcissistic children experience if they receive only a modicum of praise. Instead of being moderately pleased, they actually become upset and worried. Is it possible that others don’t see them as favorably as they see themselves? Is that why they’re only getting lukewarm acknowledgment?

That feeling of being only so-so is what leads, Brummelman and his collaborators suggest, to blushing. Narcissistic blushing is the reaction that a person high in the need for admiration feels when in the presence of social evaluation. Blushing arises in childhood when individuals start to evaluate themselves the way that others might be seeing them. In research cited by the authors, adults blush when they feel they are the target of scrutiny, evaluation, or exposure, and they feel embarrassed or perhaps shy. This “self-conscious state marked by worry about being depreciated by others” can lead to blushing by heightening the individual’s levels of stress, bringing more red blood cells to the superficial veins of the face. Everyone blushes, in other words, but people in need of acclaim by others may, counterintuitively, blush when they are the recipient of a certain type of praise.

Rather than asking children how often they blush, a problem that has plagued earlier research on blushing (i.e., do you even know you’re blushing and, if so, would you admit to it?), Brummelman and his fellow researchers observed children in the lab where their psychophysiological reactions could be precisely measured. The children, drawn from elementary schools in the Netherlands (88 percent white), visited the university lab with one of their parents, for a study purported to be on shyness. All children completed a childhood scale to measure narcissistic personality traits. This test was followed by the experimental manipulation, conducted on children one at a time. After escorting the child to the lab, the researcher asked the child to sing a song on a podium while being recorded on film (they weren’t actually taped). After the performance, the experimenter (following a randomized protocol) either gave inflated praise (“you sang incredibly well”), noninflated praise (“you sang well”) or no praise (“I heard you sing a song”). The child's tendency to blush was indicated by high levels of blood volume pulse, average blood volume, and skin temperature. The children also provided self-reports of blushing during the experimenter’s feedback.

As predicted, the children higher in narcissism were more likely to blush during the noninflated praise condition than were children with low narcissism scores. Moreover, the highly narcissistic children tended to downplay the extent to which they felt they had blushed, “perhaps in an attempt to conceal their vulnerabilities,” as the authors suggested. The children who were not high in narcissism, by contrast, were less likely to blush in the noninflated condition. These children did not feel exposed nor worried that the effect they had on others didn’t support their own grandiose self-views. They may have even felt relieved that other people saw them in a way that was similar to their own self-appraisal. That disconnect between what narcissistic children were willing to admit to about themselves and how their own physiology reacted to the faint praise may reflect a mental block, as suggested by the authors, that prevents them from gaining insight into themselves.

The authors also believe their findings suggest that people high in narcissism can fluctuate between states of grandiosity and vulnerability. The tendency to blush reflects vulnerability but the denial of having blushed appears to stem from grandiosity. As in clinical settings, people high in narcissism, the authors conclude, feel deprecated when they’re not praised but don’t want to admit to their feelings.

What is to be the fate of these narcissistic children? Rather than being condemned to a lifetime of blushing when they don’t feel as admired as they believe they should be, Brummelman and his coauthors suggest that they can be taught, through mindfulness, to become aware of their feelings and then move on to regulate them more effectively. Gaining “self-compassion,” they note, can help people high in narcissism accept their need for intense praise and relax when they don’t feel they’re getting it.

To sum up, not everyone who blushes is high in narcissism. However, as an indication of a narcissist’s feelings of vulnerability, knowing what a blush means can help you gain insight into their true needs for fulfillment.

References

Brummelman, E., Nikolić, M., & Bögels, S. M. (2018). What’s in a blush? Physiological blushing reveals narcissistic children’s social‐evaluative concerns. Psychophysiology, 55(10), 1–10. doi:10.1111/psyp.13201.