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The human relevance of tears: ‘We cry because we need other people’

It’s not only sadness or grief that makes us cry, but many other feelings as well, including empathy, surprise and anger, psychologist Ad Vingerhoets points out.

Pundits on the political right derided President Obama’s tears during his speech on gun violence, claiming they were either fake or evidence that he was an emotionally weak man.
© Carlos Barria / Reuters

While giving a speech on gun violence last January, President Barack Obama choked up and cried when he began talking about the young children who were killed during the 2012 massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut.

Pundits on the political right quickly derided his tears, claiming they were either fake or evidence that he was an emotionally weak man.

But, as health writer Olga Khazan points out in an article published last week in The Atlantic magazine on “the noble art of public weeping,” for much of history “the public weeping of grown men was celebrated. Far from surrendering power, these moist-eye gents were showing deep respect.”

Furthermore, writes Time magazine reporter Mandy Oaklander in another recent article on the science of crying, research suggests that shedding tears is an important part of being human and that people who don’t cry may be the ones with an emotional weakness, although of a different kind: They may have difficulty connecting and empathizing with others.

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For a study conducted by German clinical psychologist Cord Benecke found “that noncrying people had a tendency to withdraw and described their relationships as less connected,” Oaklander reports. “They also experienced more negative aggressive feelings, like rage, anger and disgust, than people who cried.”

Many triggers

As both reporters make clear, scientists have not come to any universal agreement on why humans cry.

“Charles Darwin once declared emotional tears ‘purposeless,’ and nearly 150 years later, emotional crying remains one of the human body’s more confounding mysteries,” writes Oaklander. “Though some other species shed tears reflexively as a result of pain or irritation, humans are the only creatures whose tears can be triggered by their feelings. In babies, tears have the obvious and crucial role of soliciting attention and care from adults. But what about in grownups? That’s less clear. It’s obvious that strong emotions trigger them, but why?” 

Currently, there are several competing theories. A leading one, says Oaklander, is that tears “show others that we’re vulnerable, and vulnerability is critical to human connection.”

For, as Ad Vingerhoets, a psychologist at Tilburg University in the Netherlands and a leading researcher on crying, pointed out to both Oaklander and Khazan, it’s not only sadness or grief that makes us cry, but many other feelings as well, including empathy, surprise and anger.

What the research has found

Oaklander’s article also debunks a couple of myths about crying — that it’s a kind of emotional and physical “detox” and that we feel better afterward. Neither has been found to be true. 

Research does support the idea, however, that crying can lead to a kind of catharsis — only not right away. “When Vingerhoets and his colleagues showed people a tearjerker and measured their mood 90 minutes later instead of right after the movie, people who had cried were in a better mood than they had been before the film,” writes Oaklander.

In her article, Khazan focuses on society’s double standard when it comes to men and women who cry at work. “The ignominy of the office cry is still more of an issue for women than for men,” she writes, “because women cry more than men do” — up to four times more, according to one researcher.

“Part of the explanation is hormonal,” writes Khazan. “Men generate more testosterone, which inhibits crying, while women produce more prolactin, which seems to promote it. Anatomy also plays a role. Men have larger tear ducts than women, so more of their tears can well in their eyes without spilling out onto their cheeks.”

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 Women may also be more likely to cry on the job because when they’re confronted with a “problem situation” at work, it is socially unacceptable for them to respond with overt anger, says Khazan, so they have a quick “stress-cry” instead. 

“But the research says, careful with that,” she adds. “Even though women might feel more socially and biologically predisposed to cry, several studies suggest they are nonetheless perceived negatively for crying at work — and in fact, more negatively than men are.”

Indeed, women who cry at work are often perceived as being manipulative (even though most women report they didn’t want to cry and try tactics like pinching themselves to keep back the tears), according to the research. When men cry at the office, however, people are likely to think, ‘something horrible must have happened,’ or ‘somebody made them cry.’ Furthermore, when a man cries, his colleagues tend to say positive things like, ‘it made me feel closer to him’ or ‘it humanized him.’ ”

A human need

Still, as the criticism of President Obama’s tears last January makes clear, men who cry in public are still viewed by some with suspicion and/or derision. 

“Crying joins the list of things — makeup, raising kids full-time— that people look down on simply because women do them more,” writes Khazan. 

It’s time we move past that view, however, for, as the latest research is revealing, crying appears to be much more important than previously believed.

“Tears are of extreme relevance for human nature,” Vingerhoets told Oaklander. “We cry because we need other people.”

FMI: You’ll find Oaklander’s article on Time’s website, and Khazan’s on the Atlantic’s website.