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Mindful : December 2018
“The study of tears is in its infancy,” says Ad Vingerhoets of Tilburg University in the Nether- lands, an expert on the psychology of crying. “I strongly believe, though, that tears have played an important role in our evolution, and still play an important function. Without tears, we humans would never have become the empathic, ultra-social species we are.” An honest signal Crying is a form of communication, Vingerhoets argues, whose purpose is to elicit help and com- fort from others. From an early age we recog- nize crying as a distress signal. When we see a child wandering alone and seemingly lost, most of us try to help; if that same child has tears running down his cheeks and is racked with sobs, only the most hard-hearted would walk on by. Crucially, tears are what biologists call an honest signal: It is harder to fake crying than to utter false words. So we respond to them more reflexively than we do to language. Facial muscles simply aren’t up to the task of conveying certain psychological states, Vingerhoets argues, so evolution stepped up and produced the capacity for emotional tears. And unlike facial expressions, tears are visible for many minutes (including by red eyes and puffy skin). Crying ’s communicative power is enhanced because humans tend to focus on the eyes when looking at others. In fact, when study participants see pictures of crying where the actual tears have been digitally removed, they’re terrible at identifying which emotion the crier is feeling. But seeing tears for just one-twentieth of a second is enough to recognize sadness and need for support, and after seeing tears only briefly, people are more willing to provide support than to people without tears, Vingerhoets and his colleag ues found in a 2013 study. Early in human evolution, reacting to an ‘I need help’ signal from a family member or compatriot “was crucial for daily cooperation with in-group members,” the scientists wrote. “ We propose that tears...became associated with a need for help and succor, first in infants and then gradually also in children and adults.” Crying was “literally related to life or death because it elicited support when individu- als were not able to take care of themselves.” Can you have a “good cry”? And why would people be wired to respond? Because those who do offer solace reap the evolutionary benefits of helping a family member or of collecting an IOU: I comfort you today, you might help me gather nuts and berries tomorrow. Curiously, though, the old adage about feeling better after a “good cry” seems more myth than fact. When people recall “good cries,” they tend to say the waterworks made them feel better, leading to the idea that crying serves a cathartic function. But the empirical evidence is more complicated: When research subjects are induced to cry by sad movie scenes, they immediately feel sadder than before their tears flowed, Tilburg’s Asmir Gračanin and colleagues showed in a 2015 study. (One reason they might feel worse is that instead of bringing comfort—the evolutionary purpose of crying—tears cause them embarrassment, at least in this artificial setting surrounded by strangers.) But because mood eventually rebounds from that low, in retrospect we think crying made us feel better. That’s mostly an artifact of memory. In real-life settings, outside the lab, mood also often plunges after a good cry. In one study, sci- entists had about 100 women record when they cried (it ranged from once to 52 times during the 6-to-10 weeks of the study), what was happen- ing (most commonly: experiencing conflict or witnessing suffering), and how they felt before and after. The women felt better afterward only one-third of the time, almost always because crying brought social support. Absent that, they felt even greater grief than before they cried and became even more upset. “ We observed very little evidence of psy- chological benefits associated with crying,” the researchers wrote. “Emotional tears were generally preceded and followed by a period of Over time and across culture and ethnicity, studies indicate that women cry more often and more intensely than men. One explanation is that testos- terone, usually more plentiful in males, inhibits tear produc- tion—as do traditional stereo- types that conflate masculinity with strength and emotional reserve. In contrast, women are expected (and pressured) to show vulnerability in many SOCIETY | Cry Like a Man? circumstances, making their tears more socially acceptable. However, studies discredit the notion that crying harms a man’s social standing. Some researchers, in fact, suggest that because men cry less often, obser vers may believe “something genuinely impor t- ant must have happened for adult males to cry,” therefore lending disproportionate cred- ibility to men’s tears. SEEING TEARS FOR JUST ONE- TWENTIETH OF A SECOND IS ENOUGH TO RECOGNIZE SADNESS AND NEED FOR SUPPORT. brain science 32 mindful December 2018