Why Do We Cry? Two Dueling Explanations

a mascot from a theme park dressed in a costume of Sadness from the Pixar film Inside Out
Image by Theme Park Tourist / CC BY

I am a champion crier. For real.

I cry when I’m happy. Cry when I’m sad. When I’m tired.

In my own case, it feels like there’s an emotional thermometer inside of me, and when the mercury in it rises enough (for whatever reason) to overwhelm the system and break the glass — BOOM, tears.

But that’s a subjective experience. A bit of sloppy phenomenology (i.e., a product of my consciousness and experience).

It doesn’t answer the bigger question of why humans in general are crying anyway.

Our Contestants

There are two very popular explanations that have been proposed by evolutionary psychologists for crying as a behavior:

  1. In this corner, we have the Helping Hypothesis. Basically, the idea behind this is that we evolved to cry in order to solicit social support from others. The tears signal to others that we are in need of help, and so they know to provide it. This, incidentally, is the hypothesis dramatized in the Pixar movie Inside Out.
  2. In the other corner, we have the Trustworthiness Hypothesis. The idea with this explanation is that crying primarily serves as a signal of honesty and trustworthiness. For the most part, crying is a behavior outside of conscious control (aside from a few folks like actors/actresses who train diligently to perform it on command). It’s fairly easy to fake a smile or a frown (although close scrutiny does show that faked smiles use different muscles, most fake smiles will nonetheless pass muster). But crying is much harder. Additionally, crying obscures a person’s vision, putting them at an evolutionary disadvantage and rendering them honestly physically vulnerable. As far as popular support goes, the Trustworthiness has been a bit of an underdog. It has no children’s movie-style backing.

One, Two, Fight

These two hypothesis were pitted against one another in a recent study in the Journal of Evolutionary Psychology.

The researchers found that while tears absolutely did make participants trust the person crying more, a crying person wasn’t any more likely to be helped by participants than one who wasn’t crying.

Therefore, it seems much more likely that the Trustworthiness Hypothesis is true. The data supported it and didn’t support the Helping Hypothesis.

Obviously, more research will be done in this area on replication and further refining the contours, but it’s a cool study nonetheless.

Sometimes the underdog wallops the reigning champion.
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This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.

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Books by Page Turner:

Dealing with Difficult Metamours

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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