A Good Cry? Maybe, Maybe Not.

Monday, December 01, 2008

By Wray Herbert

People will pay big bucks to sob uncontrollably.

It sounds twisted, but dollar signs don’t lie. “Tearjerkers” make up a multimillion dollar cinema market. Just think of Old Yeller, Brian’s Song, The Way We Were. The list goes on; pass the Kleenex.

But why? What is the psychological appeal of sniffling and watery eyes? Most people will say that crying feels good, that it’s cathartic, but that still doesn’t really get at the fundamental question of why. Psychologists are very interested in this commonest of human behaviors—and in the widely held belief in the therapeutic benefits of a “good cry.” Does everyone experience crying this way? How does the mind turn sadness into an uplifting experience? Is there such a thing as a “bad cry,” and if so, what’s the difference?

University of South Florida psychologist Jonathan Rottenberg is something of an expert on tears. He and his colleagues have been trying to sort out the crying experience, both good and bad, and they have some interesting preliminary findings from the lab. First of all, crying isn’t the sure-fire, feel-good tonic it’s cracked up to be. The psychologists collected and analyzed detailed accounts of more than 3000 recent crying experiences, and found that the benefits of tears depend entirely on the what, where and when of a particular crying episode. Indeed, fully a third of the criers experience no elevated mood after crying, and one in ten feel worse following a crying spell.

But those who do feel better after crying tend to share certain commonalities that may make their experiences therapeutic: For example, they are more apt to have been comforted by someone after crying; they’re not crying alone. They are also more likely to see whatever made them cry as fixed. And they are less apt to have been embarrassed or shamed by the experience. In short, there is tremendous diversity in the experience of crying—and its effects on mood.

Does this mean we romanticize crying when we look back on the experience? Perhaps, or at least the mind detoxifies the memory. For instance, while it’s true that a vast majority of people recall crying episodes as calming relief, these memories don’t always jibe with the real-time experience of shedding tears. When the researchers get people to cry in the lab, using some kind of sad stimulus, the experience is not all relief and soothing. Criers do show calming effects like slower breathing, but they also experience a lot of unpleasant stress and arousal; their heartbeats go up, and they start to sweat. What’s interesting is that the relief appears to last longer than the arousal. It may in fact come momentarily later and trump the stress reaction, which would account for why people tend to remember mostly the pleasant side of crying.

So do certain people benefit more than others from crying? It’s well documented that women cry more and more intensely than men—but apparently they don’t benefit all that much more than men from shedding tears. The same appears true of people with neurotic personalities; they cry more, but after all the tears are shed, they’re still more negative about life. The psychologists did find one personality trait that appears to diminish the benefits of crying: As reported in the December issue of the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science, people who lack insight into their emotional lives actually feel worse after crying. It may be that their lack of emotional insight prevents the kind of cognitive changes required for a sad experience to be transformed into catharsis.

For more insights into the quirks of human nature, visit “We’re Only Human” at www.psychologicalscience.org/onlyhuman. Selections from the blog also appear regularly in the magazine Scientific American Mind and at http://www.sciam.com/.

posted by Wray Herbert @ 2:17 PM


At 6:28 PM , Blogger Greg said...

Thanks, Wray! Now I feel ok about manning up when I'm upset....

At 1:34 PM , Blogger Maggie said...

I wonder why women cry more than men. Is it nature or nuture?

At 9:10 AM , Blogger susie said...

I remember reading that tears contain some enzyme or hormone that has the physical effect of reducing sadness. Is this true?


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