Why does one person get choked up over a Hallmark commercial, while another sheds tears only for the death of a loved one?
Does the exhortation to “have a good cry” carry any physiological or psychological merit? And how do crying behaviours differ among cultures and between the sexes?
Gender, Culture and Tears
Several factors play a role in an individual’s propensity to cry. Gender differences in crying, for example, have been explored for decades and across the world, and all of the studies reached the same conclusion: Women cry more than men.
In the 1980s, biochemist William H Frey, PhD, found that women cry an average of 5.3 times a month, while men cry an average of 1.3 times per month, with crying defined as anything from moist eyes to full-on sobbing.
Biologically, there may be a reason women cry more than men: testosterone may inhibit crying, while the hormone prolactin (seen in higher levels in women) may promote it.
But a desire to cry is not all due to nature. A study of people in 35 countries found that the difference between how often men and women cry may be more pronounced in countries that allow greater freedom of expression and social resources, such as Chile, Sweden and the United States. Ghana, Nigeria and Nepal, on the other hand, reported only slightly higher tear rates for women. People in wealthier countries may cry more because they live in a culture that permits it, while people in poorer countries — who presumably might have more to cry about — don’t do so because of cultural norms that frown on emotional expression.
Crying may also reflect attachment styles. Securely attached people are more comfortable expressing emotions and cry in ways that are considered normal and healthy, while those with insecure attachment may cry inappropriately — with easily activated, difficult-to-soothe tears.
People with “dismissive” attachment styles — or those who tend to avoid close relationships with others — are less likely to cry and tried harder to inhibit their tears than people with other attachment styles.
People with “preoccupied” styles — or those who might be clingy and overly dependent on others — cried more often than securely attached people. And, women of all attachment styles cried more than men.
Is Crying good for you?
For infants, tears serve as an important communication tool, allowing them to show their need for support. That tool may also serve us well in adulthood, several recent studies have found.
Tears are a sort of social lubricant helping to ensure the smooth functioning of a community by helping people communicate.
Tears may also serve a therapeutic role. However the supposedly cathartic role of “a good cry” has been overstated. Crying was more likely to make people feel better when they had emotional support (such as a close friend nearby); if they were crying due to a positive event; or if their crying led to a resolution or new understanding of the situation that led them to cry in the first place.
On the other hand, criers felt worse if they felt embarrassed or ashamed of crying; if they were with unsupportive people; or if they cried because they saw suffering.
Overall, criers were more likely to feel better if they cried alone or around one other person, but felt worse or didn’t experience a mood change if they were with two or more people.
Female tears can be a sexual turnoff for men. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging and other measures, researchers compared men’s sexual arousal as they viewed pictures of attractive women and erotic movies after they had sniffed real tears, and after they had sniffed saline. It was found that the men were less aroused when they had sniffed the real tears compared with the saline solution.
If you feel that crying has become a problem for you, and is interfering with your health and happiness, then please feel free to make an appointment with me.
David is a Clinical Psychologist, with a keen interest in couples counselling. He strives to provide a safe environment for his clients to explore their issues and, with assistance, develop new techniques which will help them change their unproductive behaviours. The aim is to have a happier life that assists people reach their relationship, personal and life goals.
Dr David Wells is currently on extended leave. If you would like to book with an alternative clinician with similar expertise, you can call Vision Psychology Brisbane on (07) 3088 5422.