Crying is part of human experience that permeates through all aspects of our life, ranging from crying during events of births and deaths to crying over silly squabbles and arguments. Western folk psychology has long suggested that crying is useful for us (Rottenberg, Bylsma, & Vingerhoets, 2008). Looking at over 140 years of popular articles on crying, 94% of them not only promoted crying but warned that suppressing tears can be harmful to body and mind (Cornelius, 2001). Scientific surveys on crying that included participants from 30 countries indicated that both males and females report feeling better after crying, even in countries where the cultural norm goes against men shedding tears (Becht & Vingerhoets, 2002). Even clinicians on the subject matter of crying support the idea of crying being a positive therapeutic experience, with over 70% of them actively encouraging client crying (Nelson, 2005).
With all this support for various benefits of crying, one might think that there is overwhelming evidence available to support such claims. Unfortunately, that is not case. When people are asked on surveys to think about past episodes of crying, 60 to 70% claim that crying brought them various psychological benefits (Rottenberg, Bylsma, & Vingerhoets, 2008). But when crying is induced in a laboratory by showing a sad movie clip for example, people who cry actually report feeling worse than people watching the same clip but not crying (Rottenberg et al., 2002).
One reason why the survey data doesn’t match the laboratory results might be that these two types of studies differ in when the effects of crying are measured. Surveys on crying measure the effects of crying long after the crying episode have taken place. As a result, it is difficult to find out at what point in time crying leads to positive benefits. Laboratory studies are almost the exact opposite as they measure the affects of crying just a few minutes after the crying episode took place (Rottenberg, Bylsma, & Vingerhoets, 2008).
The social environment under which the crying episode takes place also matters. Crying in a social context serves as a powerful signal for others to take notice and possibly provide physical contact and solace (Nelson, 2005). When crying is measured in a laboratory setting, it is usually devoid of any social support. In a lab, crying is usually measured by making a person watch a movie clip all alone. Lab studies on crying also involve participants being recorded on video or watched by strangers, conditions that may trigger embarrassment among criers and negate any possible positive benefits of crying.
The question of “is crying useful” is not a good one because the effects of crying are heterogeneous. The more appropriate question to ask is “under what conditions and for whom is crying healthy and useful”. Crying is beneficial to us when it is being recalled as a past crying episode, what led to crying was a resolvable problem, and when people who were crying were the kind of individuals that are comfortable in expressing their emotions.
Recently, some researchers have suggested that there may be different types of crying (Nelson, 2005). One is protest crying, characterized by loud noise and screaming, and is expressed when one wants to undo a certain situation. Then there is sad crying, where people are usually quiet and subdued, and this type of crying leads to creation of new social bonds after a loss. Finally, there is detached crying, signified by a lack of tears that is undertaken during a period of hopelessness. The kind of crying that one engages in possibly predicts positive or negative benefits from crying. Currently more research on this theory is needed.
Becht, M., & Vingerhoets, A.J.J.M. (2002). Crying and mood change: A cross-cultural study. Cognition and Emotion, 16, 81-101.
Corenelius, R.R. (2001). Crying and catharsis. In A.J.J.M. Vingerhoets & R.R. Cornelius (Eds.), Adult crying: A biopsychosocial approach (pp. 199-212). Hove, UK: Routledge.
Nelson, J.K. (2005). Seeing through tears: Crying and attachment. New York: Brunner-Routledge.
Rottenberg, J., Bylsma, L.M., & Vingerhotes, A.J.J.M (2008). Is crying beneficial? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 17, 400-404.
Rottenberg, J., Gross, J.J., Wilhelm, F.H., Najmi, S., & Gotlib, I.H. (2002). Crying threshold and intensity in major depressive disorder. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 111, 302-312.