(Mar 2/09) *New York Times* includes an article: “The Muddled Tracks
of All Those Tears” by Benedict Carey.
Here’s an excerpt:
Now, some researchers say that the common psychological wisdom about
crying — crying as a healthy catharsis — is incomplete and misleading.
Having a “good cry” can and usually does allow people to recover some
mental balance after a loss. But not always and not for everyone,
argues a review article in the current issue of the journal Current
Directions in Psychological Science.
This call for a more nuanced view of crying stems partly from a critique
of previous studies. Over the years, psychologists have confirmed many
common observations about crying. It is infectious. Women break down
more easily and more often than men, for reasons that are very likely
biochemical as well as cultural. And the physical experience mirrors
the psychological one: heart rate and breathing peak during the storm
and taper off as the sky clears.
When asked about tearful episodes, most people, as expected, insist that
the crying allowed them to absorb a blow, to feel better and even to
think more clearly about something or someone they had lost.
At least that’s the way they remember it — and that’s the rub, said
Jonathan Rottenberg, a psychologist at the University of South Florida
and a co-author of the review paper. “A lot of the data supporting the
conventional wisdom is based on people thinking back over time,” he
said, “and it’s contaminated by people’s beliefs about what crying should do.”
Just as researchers have found that people tend, with time, to
selectively remember the best parts of their vacations (the swim-up bars
and dancing) and forget the headaches, so crying may also appear
cathartic in retrospect. Memory tidies up the mixed episodes — the
times when tears brought more shame than relief, more misery than company.
In a study published in the December issue of The Journal of Social and
Clinical Psychology, Dr. Rottenberg, along with Lauren M. Bylsma of the
University of South Florida and Ad Vingerhoets of Tilburg University in
the Netherlands, asked 5,096 people in 35 countries to detail the
circumstances of their most recent crying episode. About 70 percent
said that others’ reactions to their breakdown were positive,
comforting. But about 16 percent cited nasty or angry reactions that,
no surprise, generally made them feel worse.
Given that the most obvious social function of crying is to rally
support and sympathy, the emotional impact of the tears depends partly
on who is around and what they do. The study found crying with just one
other person present was significantly more likely to produce a
cathartic effect than doing so in front of a larger group. “Almost all
emotions are, at some level, directed at others, so their response is
going to be very important,” said James J. Gross, a psychologist at Stanford.
The experience of crying also varies from person to person, and some are
more likely than others to find catharsis. In laboratory studies,
psychologists induce crying by showing participants short clips of very
sad movie scenes, like from “The Champ” or “Steel Magnolias.” Those who
break down — typically about 40 percent of women, very few men — then
report directly on the experience. These kinds of studies, though no
more than a simulation of lived experience, suggest that people with
symptoms of depression and anxiety do not get as worked up, nor recover
as fast, as most people do. In surveys, they are also less likely than
most to report psychological benefits from crying.
People who are confused about the sources of their own emotions — a
condition that in the extreme is called alexithymia — also tend to
report little benefit from a burst of tears, studies have found.
The article is online at: