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13 Surprising Scientific Findings About Crying

Sebastian Ocklenburg, Ph.D.

The Asymmetric Brain

Crying is one of the most common emotional reactions in humans. Pretty much everyone has cried at one time or another in their life. Given the common occurrence of crying in all sorts of negative (and positive) situations, it is surprising how little attention psychological research has given this important behavior.

A new paper, just published in the scientific journal Psychotherapy (Bylsma et al., 2020), summarizes the knowledge about emotional crying in order to identify important areas for future research. Here are some of the key insights that psychologists have learned about crying so far:

1. The five most common reasons for emotional crying are loss (e.g. when a relationship ends or a loved one dies), helplessness, physical pain and discomfort, empathic crying (e.g. crying because of the emotional reaction of someone else), and extraordinarily positive or moving situations (e.g. tears of joy).

2. Male and female infants do not show any differences in crying.

3. However, there is a big sex difference in adults: On average, women cry 2 to 5 times per month while men cry 0 to 1 times per month. This difference starts in late childhood and likely is due to differences in socialization (for example, boys often get told not to cry, potentially leading to an inability to cry as an adult).

4. Personality is related to crying. People with high empathy cry more easily in both positive and negative situations than people with less empathy. In contrast, highly neurotic people cry more easily in negative situations than less neurotic people, but they show no differences in positive situations.

5.  Attachment style is related to crying, too. People with an avoidant attachment style in relationships cry less than people with a secure or anxious attachment style.

6. People in wealthy democratic countries cry more often than those in other countries.

7.  Seeing somebody cry changes our perspective on that person. People who cry are perceived as more empathic, reliable, sincere, and less aggressive. However, seeing somebody cry also has negative effects as the person is seen as less emotionally stable.

8. The setting is an important factor here. Crying in the workplace is generally seen as more negative than crying in a private setting.

9. About 50% of people feel better after crying.

10. About 10% of people actually feel worse after crying.

11. Whether or not somebody benefits from crying depends a lot on the people surrounding them. If they provide support and comfort, the crying person is more likely to feel better afterward.

12. Crying occurs in about 15-30% of all psychotherapy sessions.

13. Crying in psychotherapy is likely associated with a better therapy outcome, as facilitation of emotional expression is an important step in successful therapy. Therefore, it should be seen in a positive light.

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