Why Do We Cry? Exploring The Psychology of Emotional Tears

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Terminator: Why do you cry?
John Connor: You mean people?
Terminator: Yes.
John Connor: I don’t know. We just cry. You know. When it hurts.
Terminator: Pain causes it?
John Connor: Uh-unh, no, it’s different… It’s when there’s nothing wrong with you but you hurt anyways. You get it?
Terminator: No.

— Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
Guest Blogger Joseph M. Pierre, M.D. is a Health Sciences Clinical Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences, David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and the Associate Director of Residency Education at the UCLA Semel Neuropsychiatric Institute and VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System. His work focuses on the treatment of individuals with severe mental disorders, including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression, and co-occurring substance use disorders. Although his clinical practice centers on the care of hospitalized patients who suffer from psychotic disorders, he has a longstanding interest in the grey area between psychopathology and normality and the psychological underpinnings of everyday life. Psych Unseen draws from the perspectives of psychiatry, neuroscience, psychology, and evidence-based medicine to address timely topics related to mental illness, human behavior, and how we come to hold popular and not-so-popular beliefs.

A number of articles in the mainstream press over the past few years have posed the question, “Why Do We Cry?”

Reading through them, the short answer seems to be that there is no short answer. It’s complicated.

Several of the articles about crying in the lay press have come on the heels of two noteworthy books published on the subject in recent years. The first, Why Humans Like to Cry: Tragedy, Evolution, and the Brain(link is external) is a relatively short volume written for a general audience by English neuropsychiatrist Michael Trimble in 2012. The second, Why Only Humans Weep: Unravelling the Mysteries of Tears(link is external) is a somewhat more weighty and academic tome, complete with in-text references, published in 2013 by Dutch psychologist Ad Vingerhoets.

Dr. Trimble is esteemed in his field, has probably has seen more than his share of neurologic cases involving pathological crying, and after the publication of his book was reportedly inundated with letters from people claiming to be pathological non-criers(link is external). But Dr. Vingerhoets, a psychology professor at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, gets the nod as more of an expert on normal crying (see his TEDx talk here(link is external)), as evidenced by the numerous academic papers he and his frequent collaborators Dr. Asmir Gračanin (the University of Rijeka in Croatia) and Dr. Lauren Bylsma (University of Pittsburg) have written based on active research on the subject.

In this blog post, we’ll take a quick tour of what we know about crying, what new research has added to our state of knowledge, and what questions remain.

To begin with, emotionally crying appears to be a uniquely human behavior. Animals shed tears as part of a normal ocular functioning, and there have been anecdotal reports of animals shedding the occasional emotional tear, but for the most part only humans routinely cry out of sadness and other complex emotions. Interestingly, humans cry in the context of certain stereotypical emotions as well as their apparent opposite, or “counterpart,” feeling.1 For example, we might cry out of grief at a funeral with the death of a loved one, but also with elation at the birth of a newborn child. We’re likely to cry from heartache when a romantic relationship comes to an end, but we’re just as likely to cry at a wedding as we witness the forging of a new bond. The emotions we experience at these moments are difficult to put into words and often go beyond “happy” or “sad.” Perhaps crying helps us to communicate what we’re feeling in a way that language cannot.

Indeed, in trying to elucidate the purpose of crying, researchers like Dr. Vingerhoets have focused on both it’s “intrapersonal” functions (the effects of crying on the individual) and its “interpersonal” functions (the effects of crying on other people). It has been suggested that the interpersonal aspects of crying might in particular account for its uniqueness to human beings by virtue of its evolution within a range of social behaviors that have made us successful as a species. According to this view, crying is primarily a form of non-verbal social communication aimed at eliciting assistance, comfort and social support from others. Research to date has shown that when people see other people crying, they clearly recognize it as a reliable signal of sadness or distress (in a way that’s more convincing than words) and that typically results in feelings of connectedness and responses of sympathy and a willingness to help from others.

As noted, however, things can get complicated, because reactions to crying can vary based on factors like gender and social context. For example, crying in an intimate setting is more likely to be viewed sympathetically than crying at work, which can elicit negative responses. Women — no surprise here — tend to offer more empathic responses to crying than do men. And men who merely tear up are often viewed by observers as sensitive but in control, whereas audible crying or sobbing in men can be viewed as a sign of weakness, especially when observers are in need of help themselves.1,2People modulate or attempt to control, their crying accordingly.

Turning to the non-social functions of crying, Dr. Gračanin, Dr. Vingerhoets, and Dr. Bylsma have modeled crying as a fundamentally self-soothing behavior.3 In other words, we cry in the setting of sadness and other negative emotions because it helps us feel better. This belief is supported by surveys of retrospective crying4 as well as a 2013 survey by Dr. Gwenda Simons at the University of Oxford that found that when people allow or encourage themselves to cry (“up-regulation”), it’s usually in the service of achieving a “catharsis.”5 Curiously though, in contrast to survey data, a number of different prospective studies measuring mood among test subjects who are shown sad movies in a quasi-experimental setting have challenged this view by finding that crying actually makes people feel worse.

In a 2014 paper, Dr. Gračanin and his colleagues speculated that the apparent discrepancy between the mood effects of crying based on results of retrospective surveys (crying makes us feel better) and quasi-experimental prospective studies (crying makes us feel worse) might be explained by “memory biases.”3 For example, perhaps retrospective surveys are more likely to capture positive recollections of crying than negative crying experiences. Or maybe retrospective memories of mood eventually returning to baseline in the wake of crying are misperceived by respondents as “real” improvements.

The idea that memory biases might serve a restorative role is reminiscent of how women recall childbirth. While delivering a child and the weeks that follow is nothing short of a physical and emotional trauma that not infrequently involves tears, it’s well-known that women are often eager to repeat the process, seemingly forgetting just how difficult it was the first time. One popular theory of post-traumatic stress disorder is that “reconsolidation” of memory is necessary for recovery6 — perhaps crying helps us to reframe distress, whether the subsequent memories of associated mood are accurate or not. The effects of crying on memory consolidation would seem to be a valuable subject for future research.

In the meantime, an important piece to the puzzle of the apparent discrepant effects of crying on mood was provided by another perspective “sad movie” study by Dr. Gračanin, Dr. Vingerhoets, and colleagues published in 2015.7 Although negative mood states were replicated in test subjects immediately after watching a sad film, mood improved 20 minutes later, and by 90 minutes mood was elevated relative to mood at baseline before watching the movie. So, it turns out that in short time, retrospective memories of feeling better after crying do reflect real improvements after all. Perhaps those memories are stronger than the memories of worsened mood associated with crying itself. So maybe crying really is about catharsis and the purging of negative emotions, which might otherwise be left to stew.

Which brings us back, full circle, to the Terminator-like individuals who contacted Dr. Trimble after the publication of his book about their inability to cry. In response, Dr. Trimble recently joined forces with Dr. Vingerhoets and Dr. Dale Hesdorffer from Columbia University to report survey findings from a sample of 475 people who claimed to have lost the capacity to cry.8Compared to “normal criers” as controls, those who didn’t cry rated themselves similarly in terms of overall well-being, but they experienced less empathy and less connection with others. They were also less moved by emotional stimuli and experienced less social support from others. Nearly half of the non-criers, and nearly 60% of the female non-criers felt that not being able to cry had a negative impact on their lives.

Much about crying, and especially its relationship to mental health, remains a mystery. Research to date has been hampered by a wide range of methodological limitations. Existing studies have been mostly naturalistic, with limited ability to randomize subjects to crying or not crying in order to better elucidate specific effects. For the most part, retrospective surveys have been based on self-reported mood subject to memory biases. And crying under quasi-experimental conditions such as when watching a sad movie offers an extremely narrow perspective that may or may not apply to real life conditions. Based on this very limited view, social psychology research on crying offers little more than preliminary validation of the existing folk intuition that shedding tears can sometimes make us feel better and bring us closer to others.

It has been well over two millennia since Hippocrates theorized that the function of crying is to release “ill humors” from the brain and since Aristotle wrote that crying “cleanses the mind.” Philosophically, it’s a truism to say that emotional states are relative — in order to know happiness, we need to experience sadness. What remains unproven is whether the ancient Greeks were right  — whether crying is part of a reparative process that helps us to focus on sadness and to really experience it on a visceral level, both physically and emotionally, clearing the way so that there’s room to feel, and remember feeling, better again. If this idea is supported by future research, we may be able to one day state with confidence a popular adage in psychotherapy, that sometimes we need to feel worse before we can feel better, and that crying helps to get us there.

References

1. Vingerhoets AJJM, Bylsma LM. The riddle of human emotional crying: A challenge for emotion researchers. Emotion Review 2016; 8:207-217.

2. Gračanin A, Bylsma LM, Vingerhoets AJJM. Why only humans shed emotional tears: Evolutionary and cultural perspectives. Human Nature 2018.

3. Gračanin A, Bylsma LM, Vingerhoets AJJM. Is crying a self-soothing behavior? Frontiers in Psychology 2014; 5:1-15.

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