Goose bumps often turn out to be a skin orgasm of sorts, frequently resulting from an emotional climax stimulated by a "powerful other," according to new research.
A study exploring the scientific and social aspects of goose bumps finds that this common form of piloerection is associated with feelings of awe. This physical reaction also cannot be faked.
The study, published in the journal Motivation and Emotion, helps to explain how a defense mechanism protecting the body from cold also surfaces during moments of wonderment.
"We suggest that goose bumps may be the initial reaction: a blend of fear, surprise and defense, which is displaced by a positive appraisal made even more positive by the contrast from bad to good," co-author Richard Smith told Discovery News.
Goose bumps come at the intersection of our fight-or-flight response, even if the emotional jolt arises from something as seemingly harmless as a musical performance, Smith, a professor in the University of Kentucky's Department of Psychology, explained.
"[The] powerful other has the capacity to harm, but does not, assuming our submissive response," he said. "An initial 'fight' response, after a subsequent positive appraisal, precludes a 'flight' response. This positive response may be made all the stronger by the contrast."
From a physical standpoint, goose bumps occur when the muscles underneath the skin contract, making the individual's hair stand on end. This is useful for the survival of animals with skin fur or hair, the authors note, since goose bumps aid in the retention of body heat. This explains why we get them when exposed to sudden cold.
Goose bumps are also, however, associated with intense emotional moments.
For the study, researchers had participants keep a four-week journal making detailed entries each time they experienced goose bumps and rating their feelings during such moments.
Awe was the second most-cited response as a cause of goose bumps, followed by reactions to cold. The intensity of goose bumps was also positively correlated with awe, but negatively correlated with envy.
The absence of goose bumps with envy is notable, since both awe and envy are emotions that can result from observing, or otherwise experiencing, a powerful other. Awe, however, should stabilize social hierarchies while envy should undermine them.
Jonathan Haidt, a professor of business ethics at the NYU Stern School of Business, along with colleague Dacher Keltner, has extensively studied awe. This feeling may have its origins in the emotional reactions to powerful, and thus potentially dangerous, leaders, explained Haidt, who told Discovery News that the latest findings about awe and goose bumps make sense.
"The fear aspect may be, in part, what connects awe with goose bumps, in addition to a general effect of there being a rush of emotion," Smith said.
"Following the local evolutionary psychologists, and the thinking of Haidt and Keltner, we emphasize the adaptive nature of social hierarchies, which arguably can only operate successfully if subordinates are willing to be submissive in the presence of the more powerful," Smith added. "If goose bumps foster awe in response to powerful others, which means a positive appraisal, then they work to support social hierarchies."
Other research links goose bumps to the stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system, tied to the fight-or-flight reaction. Such an emotional rush can affect cerebral blood flow associated with reward, motivation and arousal. Since the reaction is akin to a mental reflex, awe-triggered goose bumps cannot be faked.
Goose bumps are then like a natural lie detector test. Truthfully sharing our experiences with them can have the added benefit of strengthening bonds with others.