Researchers Look Behind the Tears to Study Crying

This is the VOA Special English Health Report.

Politics is an emotional business. Still, many people found themselves unusually moved by the historic presidential inauguration last week in Washington. Watching the huge crowds, we saw laughter, cheers, hugs -- but also many tears.

A tear falls from an eyeIt made us wonder, why do people cry? Surely tears must be good for us -- a way to calm the mind and cleanse the body. Yet studies show that crying sometimes makes people feel worse.

Three researchers in Florida and the Netherlands recently looked more deeply into the subject. They examined detailed descriptions of crying experiences. Psychologist Jonathan Rottenberg at the University of South Florida says they wanted to study crying as it happens in everyday life, not in a laboratory.

The team analyzed information from the International Study on Adult Crying. As part of that study, three thousand people in different countries, mostly college students, wrote about recent crying experiences. They noted causes, surroundings and any people involved in the event. They also reported how they felt after they cried.

Professor Rottenberg says the research showed that all crying experiences are not created equal. Crying does not always make a person feel better, he says. About ten percent of people reported feeling worse after their cried.

But a third felt better after crying. And a majority reported the experience as helpful.

The research showed that people who cry alone may not do as well as those with others around. People who reached out for emotional support at the time -- and received it -- reported better results from the crying experience.

But Professor Rottenberg says those who felt shame or embarrassment while crying were less likely to report that crying had been helpful.

Research has shown that women cry more often and more intensely than men. But it may not be to better effect, says the psychologist. The new findings, he says, did not show that a person's sex was a predictor of beneficial crying. In other words, just because women cry more does not mean they are more likely to have a "good" cry.

The paper entitled "Is Crying Beneficial?" appeared in December in Current Directions in Psychological Science. And there is more to learn. Jonathan Rottenberg says the science of crying is still in its infancy. 

And that's the VOA Special English Health Report, written by Caty Weaver. For transcripts and MP3s and to contact us, go to I'm Steve Ember.