science of us

I’m Blushing. Does It Reveal My Rotten Soul?

Photo: Johannes Kroemer/The Image Bank/Getty Images

In a sort of painful new study, researchers suggest that even modest praise isn’t enough for narcissists (okay, narcissistic children), and that their involuntary blushing gives this away. The researchers’ theory, presented in a paper published in the journal Psychophisiology, is that “narcissistic children are so invested in their sense of grandiosity that even modest praise can make them feel depreciated.”

This is disappointing, because up until now I’d thought that while blushing was uncomfortable, it at least made people like you. This could mark the beginning of a general blush-faith unraveling, although the study’s setup was itself sort of sweet: The researchers asked dozens of 7-to-12-year-olds (in the Netherlands, with parental consent) to privately stand on a podium and sing a song, which the kids were then told would be evaluated by a “professional singer.” The singer (actually a confederate) then gave the children, at random, one of three responses: “You sang incredibly well!” (inflated praise), “You sang well!” (modest praise), or “I heard you sing a song” (neutral) (also, burn).

The narcissistic children (who’d been deemed so after completing a quiz with prompts such as “I am a very special person” and “I love showing all the things I can do”) tended to blush when given the modest praise, but not the inflated or neutral responses. The researchers propose that this is because “even modest praise can make [narcissists] feel depreciated — a feeling that is revealed only by a blush.”

Oof. Although the harder the narcissistic kids blushed, the more adamantly they denied blushing at all — “perhaps in an attempt to conceal their vulnerabilities.” Beware being asked to sing for strangers!

Aside from all the blushing, I liked this detail: “praise is considered inflated when it contains an adverb (e.g., incredibly) or adjective (e.g., incredible).”

I could apply it to raising my nonexistent children, or just … to how I write emails.

I’m Blushing. Does It Reveal My Rotten Soul?