Psychologists have made surprisingly little progress in explaining why we cry. A popular idea is that crying is cathartic – that the tears of sadness wash away life’s woes like detritus carried off in the tide. This has been supported by retrospective surveys that ask people how they felt after previous bouts of crying. Lab studies, by contrast, which involve participants watching weepie movies, have found crying to have no such benefit. Both approaches, however, are seriously flawed. Findings from the retrospective approach are prone to memory distortion and people’s answers are likely influenced by the popular cathartic idea. Lab studies, meanwhile, suffer from a lack of realism.
A superior method is to have participants complete a daily crying diary for an extended period of time, to be completed each night – soon enough to reduce memory distortions, but not too intrusive to interfere with the behaviour under observation. Believe or not, just one diary study of crying has been conducted before. Now Lauren Bylsma and her colleagues have performed the second, involving 97 female undergrads who completed a crying diary, including questions about daily mood and crying context, for between 40 and 73 days. In all, 1004 crying episodes were documented, and all participants cried at least once. Most bouts of crying were triggered by conflict; the next most common reason was loss, followed by personal failing.
Bylsma’s headline finding is that crying mostly had little positive benefit, at least not on overall daily mood. Not only did crying episodes tend to be preceded by two days of lower daily mood, they were also associated with lower daily mood on the day of crying and lower daily mood on two successive days afterwards. For mood in the specific moments after a crying session, the results were more encouraging. Most often mood was reported as unchanged (60.8 per cent), but 30 per cent of sessions were associated with a positive mood change, with 8.8 per cent leading to a deterioration in mood.
Other findings included: more intense (but not longer) crying episodes were associated with more positive mood outcomes, as were crying episodes that followed a feeling of inadequacy and that triggered a positive change in the situation. Also, crying in the company of one other person was associated more often with positive mood change than was crying alone or crying in the company of multiple people. Conflict tears tended not to be associated with a positive mood change, undermining the idea that tears can defuse social tensions.
The study has its limitations – for example, the mood scale only had a three-point range, and of course it’s a shame that men weren’t included too. But even granted these limitations, the researchers emphasised that theirs was “the first extended examination of the relationship between crying and mood using detailed contextual information from multiple crying episodes and, as such, represents an important step towards understanding this striking human behaviour.”
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