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The influence of self-focused attention on blushing during social interaction.

Although blushing is a common emotional response (Darwin, 1872/1989), most people consider blushing undesirable and often try to stop or conceal it. Some individuals experience high levels of distress about blushing, possibly leading to blushing phobia (erythrophobia) or social phobia (Bogels, Mulkens, & de Jong, 1997; Scholing & Emmelkamp, 1993). In an attempt to facilitate the understanding of the fear of blushing, Dijk, Voncken, and de Jong (2009) proposed a cognitive model of fear of blushing. According to this model, the trigger stimulus is the belief--which can be true or false--that one is blushing. The fear of blushing is assumed to elicit negative and dysfunctional beliefs regarding the expense of blushing. For example, individuals with a fear of blushing may anticipate being rejected by others who notice their bodily reactions (Bogels, 2006). Such anticipation causes fear and this fear of blushing leads to an increased state of self-focused attention (SFA). Finally, this increased state of SFA leads to a quicker and more sensitive detection of small temperature increases, thus leading to an increased, or even exaggerated, sensation of blushing (Mulkens, de Jong, Dobbelaar, & Bogels, 1999)

One critical assumption in the model is that a heightened state of SFA plays a crucial role in the development and maintenance of the fear of blushing. However, to date research on the effect of SFA on the fear of bodily reactions has yielded conflicting results. While in some studies results have shown that heightened SFA leads to anxiety (e.g., Bogels & Lamers, 2002; Woody, 1996), in other studies no anxiety-provoking effects caused by increased SFA have been observed (Bogels & Mansell, 2004; Bogels, Rijsemus, & de Jong, 2002). In addition, although there are already studies in which the authors suggested that the trait of SFA increases awareness of physiological reactions (Fenigstein & Carver, 1978; Wegner & Giuliano, 1980), it is still unclear whether or not focusing attention on oneself increases physiological arousal.

Therefore, in this study we investigated the relationship between the trait of SFA and sensitivity to blushing. In order to also examine the effect of SFA on actual physiological blushing, we used infrared thermography to measure real-time changes in facial skin temperature of individuals before, during, and after blushing episodes during social encounters that might be expected to be blush-inducing. Consequently, we hypothesized:

Hypothesis 1: Participants with high SFA will experience blushing more intensely and more frequently than will those with low SFA in situations that might be expected to be blush-inducing.

Hypothesis 2: Facial skin temperature as an indicator of blushing will be higher in participants with high SFA than in those with low SFA, before, during, and after being exposed to a situation that might be expected to be blush-inducing.


Participants and Self-report Measures

Prior to the experiment, 416 undergraduate students from Chung-Ang University completed the General SFA subscale of the Scale for Dispositional Self-focused Attention in Social Situations (Lee & Kwon, 2005). From this sample, we selected 56 participants with the most extreme scores in the distribution (i.e., the top 20% and the bottom 20%) to take part in the study. The group that comprised the top 20% was classified as high trait SFA and the bottom 20% group was classified as having low SFA. The high SFA group consisted of 12 men and 17 women, with a mean age of 21.51 (SD = 1.86) years, and the low SFA group consisted of 11 men and 16 women, with a mean age of 21.56 (SD = 3.04) years. In order to provide a more comprehensive description of the sample, participants also completed the Blushing Propensity Scale, which measures the degree to which people expect to blush in social situations (Leary & Meadows, 1991), and the blushing subscale of the Blushing, Trembling, and Sweating Questionnaire (Bogels & Reith, 1999), which measures the extent to which individuals consider blushing as a difficulty and how afraid they are of blushing. Blushing propensity and the fear of blushing did not differ between the two groups. Table 1 contains the means and standard deviations for these variables.

Physiological Recording Apparatus

We performed the experiment in a room with a controlled environment (temperature 25.0[degrees]C [+ or -] 1.0[degrees]C, humidity 55% [+ or -] 10%). Facial temperature was taken to be the indicator of participants' blushing and we measured this via infrared thermography (NEC Thermo Tracer TS9230). The camera was 1 meter from the participant's face because this was given as the optimum distance for measuring temperature by the camera manufacturer. This distance also allowed the camera to capture the entire face. When the skin temperature had been recorded we examined changes in temperature of the forehead region. Output from the camera was recorded on a laptop PC using data acquisition software (ThermoLive version 2.60), with a sample frequency of 30 Hz.


Upon arrival, participants received brief instructions regarding the procedure, and we asked them to complete and sign an informed consent form. Afterwards, participants spent 10 minutes adjusting to the room temperature of the laboratory. Prior to the blushing-induction tasks, a baseline level of facial skin temperature was assessed for one minute. One minute later, two unknown confederates entered the room and the blushing-induction tasks started. The blushing-induction tasks consisted of 5-minute social interactions with the two unknown confederates consisting of two minutes of reading a foreign language script, followed by one minute of conversation, one minute of self-introduction, and finally one minute of self-introduction in a foreign language (i.e., English). These tasks have widely been used to induce blushing or social anxiety by provoking shame or embarrassment (see e.g., Drummond et al., 2007; Kim & Lee, 2010). After the blushing-induction tasks ended, the confederates went to another room. The experimenter then instructed the participants to sit and relax for a 2-minute recovery period. After the 2-minute recovery period, we asked participants to rate their subjective experience of blushing intensity during the tasks on a 10 cm visual analogue scale (VAS), with descriptors of not at all and extremely at either end of the scale. We also asked participants to rate their subjective experience of blushing frequency during the tasks, on a 10 cm VAS, with descriptors of not at all and very frequently at either end of the scale.

Data Production

We measured changes in participants' facial skin temperature before, during, and after the blushing-induction tasks. We recorded the maximum facial temperature within a region of interest (ROI) in the shape of an inverted triangle which covered an area from the lower central forehead to the bridge of the nose, including the area between the eyebrows. We then averaged the maximum temperature values within the ROI of each participant, and used these values as the dependent variable.

In order to investigate the time course of changes in facial skin temperature, we employed a 2 (group: high SFA, low SFA) x 7 (time segment: baseline, reading, conversation, self-introduction, self-introduction in English, early recovery, late recovery) analysis of variance for repeated measures. Where necessary, we adjusted degrees of freedom with the Greenhouse-Geisser Epsilon, to correct for violations of the sphericity assumption. In addition, we analyzed self-reported blushing intensity and frequency ratings to compare the groups, using an independent t test. The software programs used for the analyses were ThermoLive version 2.60 and SPSS version 17.0 for Windows.


Physiological Measures

Figure 1 contains the changes in facial skin temperature. Facial temperature at the baseline did not differ between the high SFA and low SFA groups t(54) = 1.36, ns. Overall, increases in facial temperature were significantly greater in the high SFA group than in the low SFA group [significant main effect for group, F(1, 54) = 6.03,p < .05, [[eta].sup.2 ]= .10]. Results indicated that the high SFA group had significantly higher facial temperatures than did the low SFA group during the blushing-induction tasks. The high SFA group also showed significantly higher facial temperatures than did the low SFA group during the recovery period [significant interaction effect for group x time, F(2.62, 141.37) = 3.94, p < .05, [[eta].sup.2] = .07].


Subjective Measures

The subjective experience of blushing intensity was significantly greater in the high trait SFA group than in the low SFA group [t(54) = 2.26, p < .05]. However, the subjective experience of blushing frequency did not differ between the two groups t(54) = 0.98, ns.


The main results gained in this study can be summarized as follows: a) participants with high trait SFA recorded higher facial skin temperatures than did those with low SFA during both the blushing-induction tasks and the recovery period, regardless of the blushing propensity and fear of blushing; b) compared with participants with low SFA, those with high SFA reported that they blushed more intensely; and c) no significant differences were found in the ratings of blushing frequency between the two groups

Compared to participants with low SFA, those with high SFA recorded significantly higher increases in facial temperatures during the blushing-induction task. In addition, the blushing episodes of those with high SFA dissipated more slowly than did the blushing episodes of those with low SFA during the recovery period, resulting in increased facial temperatures for the high SFA group over the course of the experiment. In other words, high SFA not only increased actual physiological arousal levels during blushing, but also delayed recovery from blushing episodes. Participants with high SFA also reported that they experienced blushing more intensely after social interactions than did those with low SFA, although, according to our recorded results, their ratings of blushing frequency did not differ from those of the other group. This suggests the possibility that rather than increasing blushing frequency, high SFA leads to more intense blushing experiences that last longer.

These results provide empirical support for a cognitive model of a fear of blushing (Dijk, Voncken, & de Jong, 2009) in that SFA could play a crucial role in the development or maintenance of a fear of blushing. These findings are consistent with those gained in previous studies, in which it was found that higher SFA leads to a quicker and more sensitive detection of small temperature increases, thus leading to an increased sensation of blushing (Mulkens et al., 1999; Scheier, Carver, & Matthews, 1983). Such increased sensitivity to blushing may not only induce, but also maintain, blushing. If this is so, the slow recovery following an episode of blushing may become the physiological or social cue that helps maintain a fear of blushing (Drummond et al., 2007).

In the present study, the use of infrared thermography to measure blushing proved to have two strengths. Firstly, because of the camera's noninvasive characteristic, we reduced participants' discomfort compared with the level of discomfort they would have experienced with physically fixed sensors, and this feature of our experiment increased its ecological validity. Because participants had no need to be aware of any attachments, they could concentrate solely on their tasks, as is the case in real social situations. Secondly, the tracking ability in the program we developed for this study improved data accuracy and enhanced spatial resolution.

The present study has some limitations. Firstly, we measured only one physiological variable (i.e., changes in facial skin temperature). Although facial skin temperature is an obvious index of blushing, in measuring blushing it is also important to determine whether or not other autonomic responses, such as facial blood flow and skin conductance play a part. Secondly, our camera was easily affected by the light and ambient temperature in the surrounding environment and these must be carefully controlled to prevent contamination by exogenous variables. Thirdly, after the blushing-induction tasks, the recovery period was insufficient to return participants to their baseline facial skin temperature. Finally, the order of the blushing-induction tasks was not randomized. Although facial skin temperature in each task was not significantly different in both groups, the effect of SFA on blushing in each task may not have been induced solely by the effect of the specific task, as the previous tasks could have influenced the effect of the following task as well.

This was an empirical study in which we examined the influence of the trait of SFA on sensitivity to blushing and actual blushing. These findings provide empirical support for the proposition that attentional processes do play a crucial role in the fear-of-blushing mechanism. These findings may provide valuable information regarding possible treatments, such as attentional distraction programs, for individuals with a high level of fear of blushing.


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Chung-Ang University

Kiho Kim, Sungkun Cho, and Jang-Han Lee, Department of Psychology, Chung-Ang University.

This research was supported by the National Research Foundation of Korea grant, funded by the Korean Government (MEST) (2011-0027731).

This study was presented as a poster at the 15th World Congress of Psychophysiology of the International Organization of Psychophysiology.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to: Jang-Han Lee, Department of Psychology, Chung-Ang University, 221 Heukseok-dong, Dongjak-gu, Seoul, 156-756, South Korea. Email:
Table 1. Self-report Scores for Blushing Propensity, Fear of
Blushing, and SFA

                                  High trait SFA (n = 29)

General self-focused attention      37.48 [+ or -] 2.05
Blushing propensity                 43.72 [+ or -] 12.97
Fear of blushing                    36.48 [+ or -] 16.72

                                  Low trait SFA (n = 27)      t

General self-focused attention     23.41 [+ or -] 4.81     14.42 *
Blushing propensity                41.22 [+ or -] 12.66     0.73
Fear of blushing                   32.74 [+ or -] 16.82     0.83

Notes: SFA = Self-focused attention. * p < .01.
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Article Details
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Author:Kim, Kiho; Cho, Sungkun; Lee, Jang-Han
Publication:Social Behavior and Personality: An International Journal
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:9SOUT
Date:Jun 1, 2012
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