Is Crying a Good Thing? Maybe. Sometimes.
(TAMPA, Fla.) Dec. 10, 2008 – The benefits of crying versus the stiff upper lip have been debated through the ages. In popular culture, we have been urged not to cry for Eva Peron (at least not in Argentina), yet Leslie Gore stomped her foot and said that at her party she could cry if she wanted to. We know that “big girls don’t cry-yi-i…” and that “there is no crying in baseball.” Rihanna says you’ll never see her cry, Faith Hill asks someone to just cry a little for her and Justin Timberlake (like many singers before him) wants someone to cry a river over him. Now science is getting in on the debate.
A team of University of South Florida researchers and a colleague from Tilburg University, The Netherlands, publishing in the current issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science, have found that crying is often beneficial, but benefits may depend on the traits of the crier, their social support system, and whether the crier has ongoing psychological problems like depression or anxiety. Past research has been ‘spotty,’ said the researchers, and popular opinion that often supports the benefits of crying might not be right all the time.
“A capacity to cry is part of being human,” said Jonathan Rottenberg, USF assistant professor of psychology. “Crying marks our life course, from crying as infants through important emotional events, such as weddings, births and deaths.”
Rottenberg and colleagues have developed a framework for understanding the elusive effects of crying based on a number of critical factors, like: How are the effects of crying measured? What is the crier’s social environment? Who is crying and what are his or her personality traits?
A big issue clouding past research, said Rottenberg, was that when the benefits of crying were measured had an effect on the data. Too often, the value of crying was measured long after the crying ended, which is a problem because people may forget or misremember the effects of crying on their mood. The social setting for crying episodes and ‘feedback’ from the social environment may also play a role in valuing crying. This may explain why people who cry in an antiseptic laboratory setting rarely report that they feel better afterward.
In another recent paper that will appear in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, “We analyzed over 3,000 reports of recent crying episodes in which the respondents described their social context,” explained Rottenberg. “The majority of respondents reported mood benefits after crying. However, they showed significant variation in mood benefits. A third reported feeling better after crying. One tenth reported feeling worse.”
Criers who felt shame or embarrassment at the time of crying were less likely to report any benefits of crying.
“Benefits depend on the personality traits of the crier,” suggested Rottenberg. “We wanted to know if self-reported personality traits might explain who received benefits from crying and who didn’t.”
For example, although it is documented that women cry more often and more intensely than men, gender does not predict beneficial crying. Also, it is documented that neurotics cry more often than non-neurotics, but neuroticism does not predict the benefits of crying.
“Finally, the benefits of crying might depend on the ‘affective state’ of the crier,” noted Rottenberg. “Sadness, anger and joy may be the most common affective antecedents of crying. However, we found those with anxiety symptoms and those with an inability to experience pleasure were less likely to report benefits from crying.”
For future research (and recognizing the practical difficulties in conducting crying research), Rottenberg and colleagues suggest thinking about crying research in a different way by posing better research questions.
“One better question is ‘Under what conditions and for whom is crying likely to be beneficial?’” said Rottenberg.
Future crying research should look into crying in response to positive events, ‘silent’ crying, ‘detached’ crying, and the mood effects of types of crying.
“We need to know about the exact proximal mechanisms that accompany beneficial crying,” concluded Rottenberg. “And, when benefits occur, how long do they last?”
The University of South Florida is one of the nation's top 63 public research universities and one of 39 community-engaged, four-year public universities as designated by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. USF was awarded more than $360 million in research contracts and grants in FY 2007/2008. The university offers 219 degree programs at the undergraduate, graduate, specialist and doctoral levels, including the doctor of medicine. The university has a $1.8 billion annual budget, an annual economic impact of $3.2 billion, and serves more than 46,000 students on campuses in Tampa, St. Petersburg, Sarasota-Manatee and Lakeland. USF is a member of the Big East Athletic Conference.
– USF –