In psychology research pertaining to crying, we generally see that people who are asked in retrospect how they felt after earlier instances of crying report positive changes in mood. This has led people to pass on the notion that crying is beneficial, and it is now conventional wisdom that crying is an important emotional release which is beneficial to our mental health. However, studies in the laboratory – such as having participants watch tear-jerkers and then report their mood – find that crying does not make them feel better. So what’s going on here? It turns out that these research methods were flawed to begin with, but recent research has shed light on this question.
Society’s views of crying
“There are some people for whom crying is not okay,” says MariaKhalife.com, “One small girl asked ‘May I cry, or should I be brave?’ Her question came moments before she was taken into surgery for a leg amputation. […] There are some people who wouldn’t admit to sadness if it was completely obvious to those around him. They consider it embarrassing and a sign of weakness.” I too think it’s a travesty that we live among cultures with such foolish notions about crying. Most people don’t want to cry in public, many of them even apologize for it, and onlookers sometimes cruelly insult people for such behaviour. I wonder if there is a culture that does not associate crying in some way with emotions like embarrassment or shame?
Men generally have it worse than women… in the sense that women are expected to cry and men are expected not to. In fact, research on crying is basically always done exclusively on females, because it is expected that men will not cry as much, and therefore not yield informative results. It’s probably a true assertion, but we’ll never know until someone tries it.
A personal anecdote: I once said a conspicuously tearful goodbye to two people I held dear (…one more than the other), only to have one of them (…the other) look at me and say “Why are you crying? You’re a man aren’t you?!”
…We don’t talk much more anymore.
The Wisdom of Catharsis
As bad as it is to live in a world that culturally devalues crying, we have to look at the realities of the situation. So let’s first look at what people are claiming. On the same website mentioned above, it says this:
“Since 335 BCE when Aristotle gave us his Poetics, we’ve known about the concept of catharsis – how cleansing it is to express our emotions. We place a value on being able to cry because it’s during “a good cry” that therapy happens: we process our emotions and dissolve the fear around our issues. We have diminished our distress and reduced the level of hurt it’s caused us.”
I’ll get to catharsis shortly. On care2.com, they provide a list of benefits to crying, with a serious lack of sources and even worse explanations.
“Even if you haven’t just been through something traumatic or are severely depressed, the average Joe goes through his day accumulating little conflicts and resentments. Sometimes they gather inside the limbic system of the brain and in certain corners of the heart. Crying is cathartic. It lets the devils out before they wreak all kind of havoc with the nervous and cardiovascular systems.”
I guess the writer put together a few scientific-sounding words and strung them together in sentences their readers can presumably understand. But seriously, why would one use a neurological term like “limbic system” right next to the flowery language of “certain corners of the heart?” Well I guess we shouldn’t expect much science from a website that includes ads saying “click here to get advice from this psychic now!” on the side bars. I guess they don’t really care2 give any real science. Or is “letting the devils out” medical jargon that I haven’t learned yet?
It seems that articles which promote crying generally give anecdotal accounts of the benefits of crying – important, no doubt, but perhaps misleading. And many of them are clearly out of their depths, such as the article on ThatsFit.com which includes the excerpt “Other benefits of crying? Better communication (you can’t fake real tears, so loved ones know you’re feelings are serious when they see you crying)…” which is a statement with no operational definition, and therefore, no substance. Otherwise, you could pointlessly argue that any time tears are faked, they weren’t “real” tears (i.e., What makes the tears real? The fact that no one could tell they were fake? No? Then how can you tell they’re not fake?).
Regardless, just because catharsis was discussed by Aristotle or sounds intuitive, doesn’t mean it’s an actually good idea. Psychologists have known for ages that catharsis doesn’t work, despite being lauded by the likes of Sigmund Freud. For example, when it comes to aggression, “letting off steam” is not helpful. If anything, it’s actually going to make you more aggressive. In fact, a study from 1999 by Bushman, Baumeister and Stack even showed that such anti-catharsis results are completely independent of any potential self-fulfilling prophecy. Participants either read a message that talked about catharsis being beneficial or detrimental, and the ones who read benefits desired more to hit a punching bag afterwards. However, the ones who read such pro-catharsis claims exhibited even more aggressive behaviour than the other group, after hitting the punching bag. So now that we know catharsis doesn’t work for aggression – even when we expect it to – is the same true for crying?
The Crying Diaries
While aggression is one of the most common areas of psychology research, not enough has been done on crying. Until this year, only one study investigated crying by using methodology that was both realistic enough to be valid, and practical enough to be completed without contamination. That is, a crying diary. Clinical psychology PhD student Lauren Bylsma led a study where about 100 female participants reported a total of 1004 episodes of crying, along with their moods for each day. The most prevalent reason was “conflict,” followed by “loss,” and then “personal failing.”
Interestingly, crying episodes usually involved lower moods not just on the day of the crying, but generally a few days before and after as well. But here are the main results that refute the conventional wisdom: Directly after the crying occurred, 61% of the time the participants’ moods did not change, while 30% saw an improvement, and 9% saw a more negative mood. These results can be summed up as follows: Crying may make you feel better, it may occasionally make you feel worse; but most likely, it won’t make any difference at all.
Also interestingly, crying in front of a single person was associated with more positive results than alone or with multiple people. And just as research from a few years ago suggested, it may not be the crying that results in improved mood, but the response of sympathy and support the crier receives. Therefore, crying may have a social function. However, this doesn’t explain why multiple people would yield a lower mood than a single person – you would think that if one person offered some support, two people would offer even more support. For now, we can only tentatively speculate that this was, for example, a case of diffusion of responsibility, but we really can’t be sure. Such speculation only needs to last until further research provides a more informed suggestion.
Don’t be afraid to cry. The world needs more permission to cry. But don’t expect it to magically make you feel better, because it usually doesn’t happen that way.
If you really are in a bad mood and feel that you need to improve it… you need to smile, and probably be social. Forget the crying-therapy and depressing music – watching good comedy movies with friends and doing things that make you laugh are your best bets to improving your mood, and even your health.
Bushman BJ, Baumeister RF, & Stack AD (1999). Catharsis, aggression, and persuasive influence: self-fulfilling or self-defeating prophecies? Journal of personality and social psychology, 76 (3), 367-76 PMID: 10101875
Bylsma, L., Croon, M., Vingerhoets, A., and Rottenberg, J. (2011). When and for whom does crying improve mood? A daily diary study of 1004 crying episodes. Journal of Research in Personality, 45 (4), 385-392 DOI: 10.1016/j.jrp.2011.04.007