Your Tears Can Function as a Social Glue
Have you ever wondered what is the purpose of shedding tears? This question has puzzled scientists for many decades, especially since humans seem to be the only species that cries in response to emotional situations. Other bodily responses have obvious functions: sweating to cool down the body, urinating to rid waste, and shedding basal tears to keep the eye lubricated. But what exactly is the purpose of emotional tears?
For infants and children, the vocal cry—accompanied by tears as children get older—functions to alert a caregiver of a need or problem. It acts like a siren, requesting help and thereby increasing the infant’s chances of survival. However, why would humans continue to shed tears after childhood?
Researchers have considered two main functions of emotional crying:
- that it helps the crier feel better by releasing tension or restoring a bodily balance, and
- that it—similar to the vocal cry in infants—signals to other people that we need their attention and support.
Evidence for the first proposition has been mixed, as people typically think that their tears will improve their mood, but they report no improved—or even a worsened—state, if asked right after shedding a tear.
We tested the second proposition—a communicative function—in a recent study. We presented people in 41 countries, across all populated continents, with a large pool of photographs of adults with neutral expressions from different backgrounds for whom tears were either digitally added or not. Expressions were embedded in different neutral, positive, or negative written scenarios (for example, the photographs were taken while the person attended a funeral or reunited with an old friend). We asked participants to evaluate the depicted person (did they seem warm, friendly, competent?) and how they would react to them (would they offer to help them?).
It’s Similar Around The World
In all countries, people said that they would be more likely to support a crying person in contrast to people showing no tears—regardless of their gender, ethnicity, or the reason why they cried. This tendency was influenced by the fact that criers appeared warmer, more sympathetic, and more helpless, and raters felt a stronger connection towards them.
Tears do indeed function as a social glue—they facilitate support when we feel helpless and need it most. So, does that mean that tears mainly fulfill a communicative function? What about a recovery function? The answer is not straightforward, as previous research has shown that shedding tears improves mood when criers receive support from others. This suggests that emotional crying can actually fulfill both functions. People seem to cry to send a potent signal that they’re in need, which then triggers support behavior by others, which helps the crier regulate their emotions and recover, mentally and physically. This would suggest that shedding tears when others are around is more effective than shedding tears in private.
Paradoxically, studies suggest that people report crying most often when they are on their own, likely due to social norms. Crying in public isn’t typically seen as appropriate, and crying is considered unmanly in many cultures. However, swallowing your tears because of social conventions might block the helpful effects often associated with letting your tears flow.
Why is it exactly that tears have evolved as the main signal of being in need in adults, and not other expressions, like vocal cries or the position of the eyebrows? While we can only speculate, there are several possible evolutionary reasons for this. Vocal cries are a potent signal that can be heard over distance; however, loud cries can attract potential predators. This may be why they’re replaced with silent tears as one grows older and can seek out support.
At the same time, tears can be easily recognized from a large distance, as they can reflect the light. There are also studies suggesting that people are even able to recognize tears subliminally (that is, without being completely aware of them), so they are an extremely noticeable signal—likely more noticeable than positions of the eyebrows.
Additionally, for the crier, shedding tears results in a blurred vision, restricting the performance of tasks that require a clear sight and most importantly aggressive actions such as attacks. Bystanders could therefore infer that the crier is harmless and approach them without fearing any negative consequences, so assistance would be more likely.
Some researchers have argued that emotional tears represent an action that makes us ultimately human. Shedding emotional tears seems to serve an important purposeful bodily function, just as sweating or urinating, that signals to others a need for help and binds us together like a social glue.
For Further Reading
Gračanin, A., Bylsma, L. M., & Vingerhoets, A. J. (2018). Why only humans shed emotional tears. Human Nature, 29(2), 104-133. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12110-018-9312-8
MacArthur, H. J., & Shields, S. A. (2019). How you cry, when you cry, why you cry, and who you are: Responses to adult crying in social contexts. In U. Hess & S. Hareli (Eds.), The social nature of emotion expression (pp. 209-225). Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-32968-6_12
Zickfeld, J. H., van de Ven, N., Pich, O., Schubert, T. W., Berkessel, J. B., Pizarro, J. J., ... & Vingerhoets, A. (2021). Tears evoke the intention to offer social support: A systematic investigation of the interpersonal effects of emotional crying across 41 countries. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2021.104137
Janis Zickfeld is a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Management and Center for Integrative Business Psychology at Aarhus University, Denmark. His research focuses on the causes and effects of social emotions and moral behavior.