A while back, this series featured an article called “Why Do We Cry? Two Dueling Explanations.”
The piece looked at a study that explored the following two possible popular explanations for crying as a social behavior:
- The Helping Hypothesis. 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.
- The Trustworthiness Hypothesis. The idea with this explanation is that crying primarily serves as a signal of honesty and trustworthiness, because it is difficult to fake and leaves us vulnerable while we are doing so (since it obscures our vision).
The study featured in that article pitted both explanations against one another and found that the Trustworthiness Hypothesis emerged as a clear winner.
Or, in other words, Inside Out was wrong. (Sorry, I liked the movie, too — and yes, cried when I watched it. What can I say? I’m a softie.)
Crying and Stressful Situations
But those are social reasons for crying. Could there be other adaptive reasons why crying might actually be good for us?
Yes, in fact.
The study I’m looking at today focuses on the way crying helps us (or doesn’t help us) to cope with and/or recover from stressful situations.
The researchers did not find that participants who cried when watching a sad video were better able to cope with the stress the study subjected to afterwards (in this case, having their hands plunged into nearly freezing water). Criers and non-criers were able to endure the stressful situation about equally as long.
They also found similar levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, in criers and non-criers who were subjected to the stress.
They did, however, find that people who cried were better able to regulate their breathing and their heart rate and return those levels back to baseline after they were subjected to stress more quickly than those who did not.
In other words, crying didn’t seem to help make the experience any less stressful while it was ongoing, but it did seem to aid in physiological recovery.
Well, that’s kind of neat.
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.
Books by Page Turner: