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People lack the ability to monitor and detect piloerection

Updated: Aug 16, 2023


Piloerection (e.g., goosebumps) is an essential thermoregulatory and social signalling mechanism in non-human animals. While humans also experience piloerection—often being perceived as an indicator of profound emotional experiences—its comparatively less effective role in thermoregulation and communication might influence our capacity to monitor its occurrence. We present three studies (total N = 617) demonstrating participants’ general inability to detect their own piloerection events and their lack of awareness that piloerection occurs with a similar frequency on multiple anatomical locations. Participants over-reported piloerection events with only 31.8% coinciding with observable piloerection, a bias unrelated to piloerection intensity, anatomical location, heart rate variability, or interoceptive awareness. We also discovered a self-report bias for the forearm, contradicting the observation that piloerection occurs with equal frequency on multiple anatomical locations. Finally, there was low correspondence between self-reports of being “emotionally moved” and observed piloerection. These counterintuitive findings not only highlight a disconnect between an obvious physiological response and our capacity for self-monitoring, but they underscore a fascinating divergence between human and non-human species. While piloerection is vital in non-human organisms, the connection between piloerection and psychological experience in humans may be less significant than previously assumed, possibly due to its diminished evolutionary relevance.

Statement of Impact This research reveals a striking dissociation between an obvious physiological response— piloerection—and human capacity for self-perception. While this highlights the limitations of relying on self-report measures, it also underscores an important divergence between humans and non-human species. We propose that the relation between piloerection and psychological experience in humans is less pronounced than in other species, potentially due to its diminished role in human evolution.

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