Despite the popular (and clinical) consensus that emotional tears are beneficial, dating back to ancient history, the benefits of crying to one’s physical health and its effectiveness as stress reliever turn out to be unexpectedly controversial. Scientific evidence is inconsistent at best, owing in part to the difficulty in measuring the effects of crying on the body and on the psyche in a valid, reliable and reproducible way. Crying remains a poorly understood phenomenon whose physiology is not a mystery but whose product, human tears, appears to stir controversy when analyzed for composition and function.
It is some relief to weep; grief is satisfied and carried off by tears.- Ovid
Perhaps the best known and most controversial theory on the function of crying continues to be the 1985 research published by Dr. William Frey, who hypothesized that emotion-triggered tears may simply be an excretory process. Like other bodily waste, the primary function of emotional tears may be to remove ACTH, prolactin, endorphins, toxic substances and hormones that accumulate during emotional stress. Frey reported that emotional tears, at least those he studied in his laboratory, appeared to contain higher concentrations of some hormones. Frey also reported differences between the protein content of emotional and irritant tears. These results have proven difficult to interpret and duplicate, making it unclear whether this difference has any clinical relevance. Frey’s critics contend that the amount of tears shed by humans is generally so small that it is unreasonable to presume that this process would have any physiological benefit.
A recently published book by Tom Lutz, Crying: A Natural and Cultural History of Tears offers plenty of insights into the history of public crying, but few scientific explanations for the phenomenon. Lutz, a professor of creative writing at UC Riverside offers interesting anecdotes about the political value of public tears. Says Lutz, “Men cried openly and often in the upper classes in the 18th century. Lincoln and Douglas both cried on the stump. And men cry more openly now than they did 50 years ago. Issues of ‘control’ are always in relation to these changing social norms. Bob Dole cried in public exactly twice before his 1996 campaign. But in the early 1990s, Bill Clinton had transformed the political meaning of crying; it tracked very well with women voters. All of a sudden Bob Dole couldn’t control his crying and did it often.” As to the reasons for public crying, “We do so for a number of reasons,” he says. “For emphasis (this is so important I give myself permission to break the rules); for self-definition (I don’t care how I’m supposed to act; this is who I really am); to ward off criticism (he’s too upset for me to challenge him); to suggest intimacy (he feels so comfortable with me he will break the rules in front of me); and so on.”
The BBC lists the following as the ten most frequent reasons people cry in public:
- Making one’s parents proud. For men, this most often refers to Dad, as many movies having this theme can attest, e.g. Field of Dreams.
- The birth of a first child or grandchild.
- The suffering of a loved one.
- Letting a loved one down.
- Saying I’m sorry.
- Letting yourself down.
- Being dumped.
- Being beaten in a hard-fought game.
- Winning a hard-fought game. Most recently famous is Iker Casillas, the goalie of the Spanish soccer team who just couldn’t stop crying after winning the 2010 World Cup.
- These aren’t emotional tears. It’s just bits of dust.
Psychologically, crying appears to perform a valuable interpersonal function. Tears can be a powerful way to get what we want. And there is some evidence to suggest that a process of natural selection favors infants whose cries are most alarming. This bit of psychology appears intuitively to make sense when we think about how babies get attention — they cry. And so do Bill Clinton, John Boehner, Hillary Clinton, TV preachers, and countless others on baseball, football, soccer fields and TV sets everywhere. And they get attention.