Researchers discover benefits of crying

Students can spill all the milk they want, because according to a study by USF researchers, crying might actually be good for them.

The study used survey data from more than 5,000  students in more than 35 countries about recent crying episodes, said graduate student Lauren Bylsma, who worked on the project.

Ad J.J.M. Vingerhoets, a professor at Tilberg University in the Netherlands, provided the data, and colleague Jon Rottenberg, assistant professor of psychology at USF, helped him conduct the study.

Intrigued by the power of crying as a social cue, Rottenberg said he wanted to observe different kinds of crying and its possible benefits.

“We’re particularly interested in what the consequences of crying are,” he said. “Does crying impact mood? Does crying impact the situation? And if so, how does it change things?”

Results showed that people experience different feelings as a result of crying, which can depend on their social situation, personality and reason for crying.

“Most people reported experiencing benefits from crying,” Bylsma said.

Positive social support, resolution of the problem and understanding from others usually led to a positive outcome, she said. However, negative support and a lack of resolution made people feel there was no benefit to crying.

“One of the big assumptions about crying that you’ll see everywhere in popular literature (and) popular psychology is that crying is good for you,” Rottenberg said. “What we found is that crying is good for you sometimes, for some people, in some situations.”

For example, though women reported crying more frequently than men, its effect on their mood was no different, he said.

In addition, people with psychological problems such as depression did not report as often that crying was beneficial.

“Crying is a behavior that people do to both acknowledge and change a situation,” Rottenberg said.

Situational changes were often associated with feeling better, he said.

Several methods were employed to record data for the research. Students around the world were asked about recent crying episodes, including questions about the situation, duration, presence of others, and how the crying made them feel.

Lab tests were also used, and included a stimulus — such as a sad movie — that made people cry, which allowed researchers to study participants directly.

One drawback to this type of research, Bylsma said, is that some people could be biased when answering questions.

To account for this, future research will employ Palm Pilots, she said, which will randomly ask participants about factors such as their surroundings, mood and recent crying.

Rottenberg said the main challenge of research on crying is measuring factors associated with it.

“We’re starting to understand a little bit better just some of the basic rules for how often and in what sorts of contexts,” Rottenberg said.

“The person who cries learns that there’s a problem,” he said. “The crying is like a signal to yourself that something is really the matter.”