DUCKWORTH: I’m in physical pain. I’m in discomfort. I’m hungry.
* * *
DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.
DUBNER: I’m Stephen Dubner.
DUCKWORTH + DUBNER: And you’re listening to No Stupid Questions.
Today on the show: What is the purpose of crying?
DUBNER: I’m not crying. My eyes are just leaking. I promise!
* * *
DUBNER: Angela, a listener named Shane writes in with a question that is surely not stupid. He asks simply, “Why do we cry? It seems to be both a biological and an emotional reaction. There must be a reason or why else would we have the phrase ‘a good cry?’” Shane, I must disagree. Shane, there’s no such thing as “a good cry” — especially if you are a man. Please do not ask such stupid questions.
DUCKWORTH: What accent, specifically, are you doing right now, Stephen?
DUBNER: Sorry. That was my Teutonic super ego. I said, “Man, do not cry. Shane, what are you thinking?” But anyway, Angela, what do you think? Why do we cry?
DUCKWORTH: Okay. So, Shane asks about the biology and the emotional dimensions of crying. So, just some basic facts: tears are partly functional from purely biological reasons. We have tears, in part, to, like, lubricate the eyeball. If you get a mote of dust in your eye — or anything else flies into your eye — you also produce tears to flush the eye. I don’t think that’s what Shane is especially interested in.
DUBNER: Only babies and women cry. And maybe men — if you get big speck of dust in your eye.
DUCKWORTH: So, — so, why do we have emotional crying? That’s the question that Shane is asking. And I think the question of why we cry is such a deep one, because it’s not the case that only human beings experience sadness. We think other animals can experience some version of sadness, though, of course, it’s very hard to talk to them.
DUBNER: Not so hard to talk to them. They just don’t talk back.
DUCKWORTH: Yes. Exactly. To have a full-on conversation.
DUBNER: Dr. Dolittle had a whole thing about talking to the animals, you will recall.
DUCKWORTH: Oh, that’s true. I had Dr. Dolittle books.
DUBNER: I think they talked back though, didn’t they? Those were the outliers. Those were the talkative animals.
DUCKWORTH: Fiction, and all that.
DUBNER: Oh, fiction.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. Footnote. But the idea of crying as an expressive, emotional act, and in particular, I think, my thesis is that crying really is a form of interpersonal communication. It is a signal that we send to other people. I’ll go out on a limb and say, I think human beings are the only animals that cry as a means of social communication.
DUBNER So, that’s a very interesting observation or theory that you’re offering. And it does make me wonder, just from an n-of-one, meaning me, I don’t cry a lot.
DUCKWORTH: Do you cry at all?
DUBNER: I do cry. Well, it depends, you know, there’s a spectrum. Does tearing up count as crying, for instance? I would say yes.
DUCKWORTH: Let’s say yes. And then, yeah, tell me more.
DUBNER: I would say I am fairly prone to cry, or at least to tear up, when alone and not with others.
DUCKWORTH: When, when you’re alone?
DUBNER: Do you want a story?
DUCKWORTH: I always want a story.
DUBNER: Very recently, it was the anniversary of my father’s death — which I, and my wife, and in this case our son was home from college — we mark with lighting a yahrzeit candle, a memorial candle, just at home and go to synagogue the week of to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish. It was a nice, moving experience — especially because it was with my wife and son, neither of whom ever met my dad.
DUCKWORTH: You were 13?
DUBNER: I was 10 when my dad died. So, I was a pretty little kid. And then, okay, I may have told you in the past about this childhood hero I had named Franco Harris. He was a football player for the Pittsburgh Steelers. So, I became a huge fan of Franco Harris around the time my dad died, and then I ended up having this recurring dream about Franco Harris for a couple of years, and it was a very involved dream where he was plainly somewhere between a father figure and a messiah. So anyway, on this day, not long ago, the night after we lit the memorial candle to commemorate my father’s death, I woke up to the news that Franco Harris had died on the same day, as it turns out, 49 years later, as my father had died.
DUCKWORTH: Exactly the same day.
DUBNER: Exactly the same day. Actually, as we speak, I’m not sure yet when the date of death has been declared for Franco, because this is very recent. But yeah, so, he was a great football player. He was a Hall of Famer. He helped the Pittsburgh Steelers win four Super Bowls in six years back in the seventies, so I was hardly the only person who was a big, big fan. By the way, I also wrote a book about Franco Harris years ago. It was called Confessions of a Hero Worshiper, where I tracked him down when I was an adult, and we spent some time together, and I was writing about what the afterlife of a professional football player is like — in this case, the football player who happened to be my childhood hero. So, it was a slightly contorted memoirish reported book. Anyway, that was some years back. Franco Harris dies, and the whole sports world, and the world beyond, takes notice. And I must have received, I don’t know, hundreds of emails, and texts, and calls from people I didn’t know, people I did know, people from my childhood who knew how much Franco had meant to me, people who knew I’d written a book about Franco. So, I was getting all these really lovely, heartfelt messages. Anyway, I didn’t cry about Franco Harris. I didn’t cry the night before lighting the candle for my father, but the same day that Franco died, and as all these emails and texts are coming in about Franco, and I’m thinking about him, and he’s all over T.V. — the N.F.L. Network is wall to wall Franco Harris — I am working, and we are in the midst of closing the Freakonomics Radio episode, the final episode of a three-part series we’d been doing on Adam Smith, the proto-economist and philosopher from Scotland, who was born 300 years ago. And as I’m listening to the music mix of the final version of this last episode about Adam Smith, as we’re visiting the graveyard where Adam Smith is buried, this is in Edinburgh, and we bring in this beautiful piece of fiddle music, now I start crying.
DUCKWORTH: Now you start crying.
DUBNER: You know, I love music, and music moves me often. So, when I’m crying when I hear the fiddle come in to mark the end of this episode we’ve been working on — while we happen to be in a graveyard — it was just a combination of emotional things that did their work on me. And I thought, “Wait a minute, why is the fiddle making me cry and not Franco or my father?” Then I thought, “Well, maybe that was my response to Franco and my father that was pent up somehow.” So anyway, I have been thinking about crying, and so I’m glad this question came in.
DUCKWORTH: Upon reflection, do you think it was a reaction to Franco and your father, or what?
DUBNER: Well, you know, I did go in search of why we cry. I wonder if you’ve heard of this psychologist. He’s at Tilburg University in the Netherlands. His name is Ad Vingerhoets.
DUCKWORTH: Yes. I think this psychologist of whom you speak is, you know, one of the leading researchers on crying. So, yeah, I’m cursorily familiar.
DUBNER: Well, I am even more cursorily familiar with him, because I found him via Google, and I read here that Ad Vingerhoets identified five broad antecedents — or I guess I would call them, “causes” — of emotional tears: loss or separation, seems pretty obvious; helplessness or powerlessness, interesting; physical pain and discomfort, makes sense; empathic crying, also makes sense. But number five, the last one, this is the one that I subscribe to: a response to extraordinarily positive or moving situations. I mean, to me, it’s odd that I don’t cry to the first four, at least very often. But the last one — like, I have an emotional response that’s sometimes a melancholic response, sometimes it’s a response of total joy, sometimes I’ll hear a piece of music that I just find really beautiful or, you know, maybe it’ll be watching a play or a movie, but it tends to be more music. But I did wonder — maybe this is a little bit getting to Shane’s question too — I did wonder, why is that the one that seems to work on me? So, I’d love you to tell us what you can.
DUCKWORTH: Explain everything.
DUBNER: Yeah. I’d like you to explain everything, essentially.
DUCKWORTH: Well, let’s first begin with the more obvious cases of crying, because I think that also gives you a sense of, you know, where did crying come from? And from an evolutionary perspective, why would human beings have evolved this unique capacity? So, let’s start with the very, very common-sense things. Like, we cry in response to pain. We know this about children, right? We all have heard a baby cry, and for most of us anyway, even if it’s not our own baby, it does precipitate this, like, reflexive, “What’s going on? What’s wrong?” This is the baby’s way of saying, like, “I’m in distress. I’m in physical pain. I’m in discomfort. I’m hungry.” So, you know, primarily it’s auditory. Like, “I’m crying out with my voice,” As we get older, the visual cue becomes even more important. So, most people, for example, when they cry, aren’t making a whole lot of noise, but visually, right, it’s super clear to you and to everybody else that tears are coming out of your eyes. So, it becomes this visual signal.
DUBNER: “I’m not crying. My eyes are just leaking. I promise!”
DUCKWORTH: So, I think from a very basic standpoint, like, why would it be helpful for a baby to be able to show you this S.O.S. signal? Well, that’s pretty obvious, and I think you could argue that the other categories — I guess Ad calls them, like, “antecedents of crying,” but like, why we cry — are also pretty straightforward. He says, you know, loss or separation — like, canonically, grief. Everybody knows what it means to be in a state of loss. And then, helplessness. This is, like, you are feeling overwhelmed by your situation, and you can’t help yourself to get out of it. Many people cry in response to that. So, these three categories: like, I’m in pain, I’m grieving, or I am helpless — it would be a great thing to be able to send out an emotional distress signal. I think we cry because we’re social animals who have evolved to depend on each other, and this is the flag that you wave around that says, like, “You need to come over here and help me.”
DUBNER: Right. Now, you started talking about babies. Although, I’ve also read that there are a lot of different hypotheses about why babies do cry. Here’s a piece from Evolution and Human Behavior in 1997. The piece is called “Why Cry? Adaptive Significance of Intensive Crying in Human Infants.” “No. 1: crying indicates distress of infants due to physical separation from their parents.” Okay. “No. 2: crying may be an adaptation to decrease the likelihood of infanticide. Intense crying would indicate that the baby had vigor and enough strength to survive.” In other words, “I can cry loud, so don’t kill me.” I would think the opposite. I would think if you got a baby that’s crying a lot, you might want to get rid of that one, but that’s just me. No. 3, “The infant may utilize his or her crying capacity to psychologically manipulate the parents to provide more parental care.”
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. Although, that’s related to the first thing, right? It’s like, “S.O.S.”
DUBNER: And hypothesis four, “The ‘super-child hypothesis’ posits that crying may be a manipulation that attempts to avoid the costs of sibling competition by increasing the interval between births.”
DUCKWORTH: Alright, I’m going to go with this: the obvious observation of babies is that they do cry when they’re in distress, and the next observation you make is that somebody runs over to the baby and helps them. So, that’s all the data I need to suggest that it’s pretty straight forward.
DUBNER: It’s an S.O.S. that works. So, if you’re going to include adults, now we probably want to rope in the other reasons that we may cry as adults, including joy, right?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. And let’s go back to Ad’s list. We are this social creature that has evolved to have a social signal of distress. It starts out as that, right? But then, you can imagine how that same signal becomes a little more complex and becomes, in a sense, repurposed. Now, crying can take on other functions. The next most sensible thing is empathic crying, I think, in the sense that when you see somebody else who’s got distress, and they in fact might be crying, you cry in response. Like, that’s your signal back. Some psychologists conjecture that when we see that someone’s a crier — you know, you might be on a plane, someone’s watching a movie, you notice that tears are rolling down their cheeks — that we would immediately assume that that person is more moral, that they’re a more empathic, sensitive human being. Why is that? Like, somebody who has the capacity to have that kind of empathic response, certainly isn’t a psychopath — certainly somebody with sensitivity. And then, this most perplexing of categories — to be so moved by a musical piece, or a movie. Basically, I think the puzzle of this last category is: it can be a beautiful, awesome, positive experience. Weddings, right? Like, this category, certainly babies, and largely children, don’t do, but you and I do.
DUBNER: Um, my babies did cry at weddings.
DUCKWORTH: Probably more for physical pain and discomfort, right?
DUBNER: Probably, right? It is interesting, the more I think about it, how many different functions there are. I mean, compare it to vomiting.
DUCKWORTH: That’s pretty much a one-function tool.
DUBNER: Maybe two? You vomit when you’re sick, and maybe you vomit when you’re disgusted with something. But disgust and sickness are at least related. So, crying seems incredibly versatile.
DUCKWORTH: Right? Like, this thing that we do — water comes out of these tear ducts that we have for other reasons like lubricating the eyeball — that is amazing that it has evolved such a complex function that sometimes it can mean, “Hey, I’m grieving.” Sometimes it can mean, “Hey, I’m helpless.” Sometimes it can mean, “Hey, I stubbed my toe.” Sometimes it can mean, “Oh my gosh, that was gorgeous.” That same signal also says something about human social perception, because when you see someone cry, I think most of the time you get it right, like, you can guess why the person is crying. You don’t, you know, lean over to someone at a wedding and say, “Did you stub your toe?” You know they’re crying because they’re moved from this beautiful experience.
DUBNER: So, I would love to hear from listeners, what’s something that made you cry lately? Make a little voice memo. Send it to us at NSQ@freakonomics.com. Just find the voice memo function on your phone record in a nice, quiet place. Tell us your story. Also tell us your name, what you do, et cetera. And maybe we will play it on a future episode of this show.
Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Stephen and Angela discuss why men seem to cry less often than women.
DUBNER: The last time I cried was when I was a baby.
* * *
Now, back to Stephen and Angela’s conversation about the psychology of crying.
DUCKWORTH: I think the major benefit is that it really is a signal of distress which brings people to you. I remember quitting my job at McKinsey and explaining to my supervisor that, even though I had been hired for a minimum of two years, that, yes, it was month 10, and yes, I intended to leave at month 11. And my supervisor was making all these, you know, strenuous arguments about why society would be better off if I stayed a management consultant. You know, “You could be on boards if you care so much about children.” Like, you can be on a nonprofit board of directors. And this conversation was going on, and without any guile, honestly, I just started crying. I wasn’t trying to manipulate my manager.
DUBNER: “I would stay if only you could give me $50,000 more dollars, and a bigger office, and six weeks of vacation instead of four.”
DUCKWORTH: No. I can’t even exactly remember what I was saying. Right? And also, why was I crying? I can’t even exactly pinpoint, except for that I did feel overcome. It wasn’t physical discomfort. It wasn’t even sadness or helplessness. I’m just overwhelmed by the, kind of, enormity of the situation. At any rate, let’s ask the question: what did my manager do? Oh my gosh. I just had spent half an hour, 45 minutes, trying to justify my departure. I was more or less getting a hard time about it. Uh, full 180. It was like, “It’s amazing that you’re going into teaching. First let me get you a tissue. What can I do to be helpful?” You know, it’s an amazingly effective signal.
DUBNER: So, you’re saying you’re crying signaled to this person that you had a passion, an emotional way forward, and she was persuaded that that was legitimate and worth celebrating. That’s what happened?
DUCKWORTH: First of all, “he,” but it doesn’t matter that much. But my manager had this, like, immediate reaction. One explanation for why we cry in situations that are not just sadness, they’re not just distress, they’re not pain, it’s what some scientists call an “emotional exclamation mark.” It’s a way of kind of putting asterisks, and bold face, and underlining around what’s happening — maybe to convey not only the depth of our emotion, but also the sincerity. Is that, for example, why I spontaneously started crying? Like, at some level my body and mind knew that I needed to put an exclamation mark around things that I was saying? And also, was the manager responding to that exclamation mark? It’s like, “No, she’s serious. She’s all in on this. Now I need to change.” I don’t know.
DUBNER: When you look back at that moment when you burst into tears considering your future, did it feel like a catharsis of some kind?
DUCKWORTH: Did it feel like a catharsis? I mean, catharsis is supposed to be — you know, I think it goes back to the Greeks — but this idea that when you experience an emotion you, like, get it out. Like, a purging. So, for example, you know, this expression we have of, like, having a good cry. The way we think it should go is that you should feel better afterwards, because you’ve gotten it out. But I will say that I don’t think I had any kind of catharsis in that, uh, conversation. And, in general, research is pretty surprisingly clear that catharsis doesn’t really work that way. In other words, it’s a myth that when you have an intense emotional experience that you quote-unquote, like, “feel better” that you’ve gotten it out. We talked about catharsis not that long ago. I think we were talking about horror movies and also a theory there, like, maybe we get out our anxiety or fear in the context of watching a movie. But there too, I think, that thesis, as attractive as it is, has been pretty, fully undermined. It may be that in some cases you’ve signaled distress and other people have rushed to your aid, and that’s good. It may also be that, you know, noticing that you’re feeling a certain way is good, but in general, just experiencing a lot of negative emotion does not lead people to then be okay. If that were true, then, like, depression would cure itself.
DUBNER: I did read, however, something which stated that what you say now is essentially the case, which is that, you know, the supposedly cathartic value of a good cry has been overstated, but there may be some kind of release that is more biological than emotional.
DUCKWORTH: Oh, like, stress hormones that are in the tear ducts?
DUBNER: I’m not sure if stress hormones, or some kind of proteins. Do you know this guy, William Fry, a biochemist who studied tears of different sorts? He’s looked at emotionally-induced tears versus, let’s say, the tears from environmental irritation. Okay, here’s what it says: “William Fry, a biochemist, tested samples of, quote, ‘emotionally-induced tears’ and found they have higher protein counts than tears caused by environmental irritation, such as cutting an onion. Fry believes that the reason people feel better after crying, in some cases, is that they may be removing, in their tears, chemicals that build up during emotional stress. Thus, when people use the expression to ‘cry it out,’ we are suggesting that this may literally be true.”
DUCKWORTH: That may be, but the obvious “third-variable confound,” as we say in social science, is that: say, you’re feeling some distress, then you cry, maybe not so that you can get out all these stress hormones — like, you’re experiencing all the stress hormones because you’re distressed. I don’t think the body needs a lot of kind of, like, “What do we do with all this cortisol? Like, oh gosh, let’s get it out through the tear ducts.”
DUBNER: I hear in your voice that you’re ridiculing the possibility of that being true. But that doesn’t sound, prima facie, bonkers to me.
DUCKWORTH: It’s not bonkers except for, like, we experience these stress hormones in lots of other situations where you don’t cry but you’re, like, anxious, or your heart rate goes up, and, like, the body doesn’t seem to need to expel —.
DUBNER: I know, but maybe we should cry though. Okay, here’s what I’m really doing. I’m looking for a reason to give Shane, and me, and everybody else, a little bit more reason to cry.
DUCKWORTH: But wait, Stephen, did you need more convincing?
DUBNER: Well, heck yeah.
DUCKWORTH: I mean, first of all, I should say that you and Shane are men.
DUBNER: There is a massive gender gap when it comes to crying. Men cry much, much, much less than women.
DUCKWORTH: The ratio has been estimated at two to one, three to one, four to one. I mean, by a lot, right?
DUBNER: By a lot. And there have been some physiological explanations. Testosterone may inhibit crying, and prolactin may promote it. Also, men have, I’ve read, larger tear ducts, which means we can store up more tears. We don’t have to spill them all over ourselves the way you ladies do. But, all right, I’m going read you a quote. I want you to tell me who said this. “When I see a man cry, I view it as a weakness. The last time I cried was when I was a baby.” Who said that?
DUCKWORTH: Well, it sounds like Donald Trump.
DUBNER: It was Donald Trump. Yeah. So, let me read it again just, uh, without the drama. “When I see a man cry, I view it as a weakness. The last time I cried was when I was a baby.” That’s Donald Trump in 2015 before he became president. So, let’s talk about the gender norms or social conditioning. Yeah.
DUCKWORTH: So, it is absolutely the case that men, based on all the evidence, it seems like they actually do cry less than women. One question that scientists have asked: is that because men don’t feel sad as much, or these other things that we talked about — like, feel moved?
DUBNER: Speaking on behalf of all men: yes, we don’t feel sad. We feel good all the time. If there is a bag of potato chips within a half-mile radius of us, for instance, that’s all it takes for us to feel pretty good.
DUCKWORTH: And a beer.
DUBNER: If there is a football game in the next seven days being played anywhere in the world, we feel pretty good. Yeah, we’re very simple animals in that regard.
DUCKWORTH: Well, interesting. The research on emotion and gender says, “Oh, contraire,” I mean, it’s mixed. Some studies do find that, you know, women have more actual emotions — positive and negative — than men do. But a lot of research suggests that there really aren’t big gender differences at all in the experience of emotion. The difference is in the expression.
DUBNER: Can I ask a question though? How is this data gathered? In other words, is it self-reported?
DUCKWORTH: Yes, I will say this: the bedrock of emotion research is a questionnaire, because what else are you going to do?
DUBNER: You can put people in an fMRI, and you can’t tell why people cry? Neuroscientists use fMRIs to get at things that are much more, to my mind, complicated and diffuse than crying.
DUCKWORTH: Sure. But, just to say though, like, if somebody comes out of a MRI study, and you say, “You were feeling sad at minute 40. I know, because, like, this part of your brain lit up,” and they say to you, “I swear up and down. I was not feeling sad. I was thinking about whether we had sauerkraut for the bratwurst I’m making tonight,” and you’re like, “Nope, this part of your brain lit up.”
DUBNER: It’s either the sad part of the brain or the sauerkraut part of the brain — to be determined by future scientists.
DUCKWORTH: No, but really, I think, when it comes to emotion, the person who is experiencing the emotion in a way, you know, pardon the expression, has the “trump card.”
DUBNER: Okay. Yes. But, are you therefore measuring whether men experience less sadness — let’s just call it sadness — or are they less likely to want to admit to —.
DUCKWORTH: I’m not saying it’s not a limitation, but since other studies of facial expressions — like, you know, you videotape people — you also could probably use physiological measures like heart rate and heart-rate variability, et cetera. None of the findings seem to, like, deeply contradict the self-reports. When everything goes together, you’re like, “Well, the self-reports say this, and what little laboratory research we have,” then you start to believe. And I’m not saying there are no gender differences, it’s just that the gender differences in expression are massively larger than any data on gender differences in experience. I think that is going to hold up.
DUBNER: Noted. And I appreciate that explanation. I will say this, I think that many men, especially modern men in the Western Hemisphere —.
DUCKWORTH: You’re really hemming yourself in, Stephen.
DUBNER: Let me say: many men in the North Atlantic states in the year 2023, let’s say, okay, do feel like crying, as Shane implies, is seen as a sign of weakness or shame, or dare I say, “femininity.” What’s interesting to me, however, is that this social norm, or even social construct, seems to be fairly modern. So, I read a piece in Aeon Magazine by Sandra Newman. It’s called “Man, Weeping.” I’ll just share with you a sentence or two. “Historical and literary evidence suggested, in the past, not only did men cry in public, but no one saw it as feminine or shameful.” One citation, “Homer’s Iliad, for instance, the Greek army bursts into unanimous tears no less than three times. Furthermore,” she writes, “the sobbing male hero wasn’t only a Western phenomenon, he appears in Japanese epics as well.” In The Tale of Heike, which is often cited as a source for the ideal behavior of a samurai, we find men crying demonstratively at every turn. The Bible,” she writes, “is full of similar references to demonstrative weeping by kings, entire peoples, and God himself.” So, I find it interesting that if you look at history and literary history, you find that there’s an awful lot of crying. And who’s to say that that wasn’t a better way to express our emotion?
DUCKWORTH: Well, I’m never going to be on the side of, like, “we shouldn’t cry.” Because, in general, if we have something in our emotional repertoire, there is a reason, and the mistake people typically make is to, like, squash it or to, like, never want to use that tool. I don’t know whether this gender difference between male and female emotional expression — which, by the way, isn’t just crying, it’s also smiling. So, not only the expression of negative emotions tends to be greater among women, also the expression of positive emotions — women smile more. So, I’m all for emotional expression. And I think if you go back to this very, very original idea of, like, it evolved from a distress signal, right? Maybe you could argue that the reason why a Donald Trump or a very, you know, stereotypically “macho” guy doesn’t want to wave around a distress signal is because we are also a hierarchical species. I mean, let’s not forget we descended from primates that are, like, so clearly hierarchical. There’s an alpha male. Like, it’s not a great position to be in a hierarchical social society, to be weak. So, I’m all for emotional expression, but I can understand why there would be some hesitancy.
DUBNER: Let me just say, the examples I gave earlier from history and literature of demonstrative crying, there is an outlier, as noted in this article. “The glaring exception to this worldwide sob fest was Scandinavians who valued stoicism. The accusation of a man crying was, in fact, justifiably avenged with death.”
DUCKWORTH: And the royal family. I say this having just binge-watched “The Crown” and “Harry and Meghan,” the Netflix special.
DUBNER: They’re not allowed to cry?
DUCKWORTH: At least the stereotype seems to be the stiff upper lip of the British, right? “Keep calm and carry on.” Like, you know, the kind of weeping that you describe is not what the British monarchy has modeled.
DUBNER: So, what’s a good way for men, especially, who seem to feel shame or embarrassment about crying in public — even if it’s just with a friend or a couple of friends — if you’re arguing that crying may not provide catharsis in the old Greek or Freudian sense, but, you know, it’s a useful social lubricant or signal. If that’s true to any degree, how would you suggest that men particularly think about not being so shameful about it?
DUCKWORTH: All right, so if I’m to give a pep talk to men — a kind of pro-crying pep talk.
DUBNER: Get out there and cry, guys!
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, right? If I’m just trying to, like, psych them up for this next opportunity. Then, coming back to our friend Ad Vingerhoets — there’s this paper in 2022 called the “Only the Good Cry,” colon, “Investigating the Relationship Between Crying Proneness and Moral Judgments and Behavior.” And it’s this study that has samples from around the world, and the total sample size is over 2000 people. And they administer this crying scale — this kind of, like, how prone are you to crying in very different situations — scale. And then, they also give some measures of moral judgment. And even, I believe, at the end of this, there was this opportunity to do this, like, boring, effortful task, but the more you did it, the more money would be donated to charity — so, a behavioral measure of being an altruistic, prosocial person. Crying proneness was positively correlated with having, you know, prosocial, ethical, moral judgments and also behavior.
DUBNER: So, the pep talk would be, “I may be weak and submissive, but I’m a good person, dammit.”
DUCKWORTH: And everybody else will think that you’re a good person. So, there!
DUBNER: And that will make your macho rivals break down in tears.
DUCKWORTH: Yes. If they’re manly enough to do it.
DUBNER: I can’t really say anything more than you just said.
No Stupid Questions is produced by me, Rebecca Lee Douglas. And now, here is a fact-check of today’s conversation.
We should note that Stephen’s father Solomon Paul Dubner died on December 21st, 1973 at the age of 57, and Franco Harris died exactly one day short of 49 years later — on December 20th, 2022 at the age of 72.
Then, Stephen gets the year of publication wrong for “Why Cry? Adaptive Significance of Intensive Crying in Human Infants.” The paper ran in Evolution and Human Behavior in 1998, not 1997.
Later, Stephen says that while crying can signal a multitude of things, vomiting only signals two: sickness and disgust. In fact, vomiting can be a symptom of physical discomfort that’s not necessarily caused by illness — it’s associated with pregnancy and menstruation, for example. It can also be triggered by emotional stress, or even by extreme excitement.
Also, Angela says that women cry an estimated two, three, or four times more than men. According to the research of William H. Frey — the biochemist who concluded that emotional tears carry more protein than non-emotional tears — men cry an average of 1.3 times per month, while women cry an average of 5.3 times a month. That’s just over four times as much. However, we should again acknowledge that this is self-reported data. Men could be secretly crying and then denying it.
Finally, Stephen mispronounces The Tale of the Heike, the 14th-century Japanese epic that depicts great warriors crying.
That’s it for the fact-check.
In last week’s show, Stephen and Angela decided to launch a new series of episodes dedicated to the seven deadly sins. We’re still looking for questions about sloth, lust, and gluttony. Send us an email or a voice memo with your query, and Stephen and Angela might address it in the upcoming series! Also, we’d love to hear stories about the last time you cried. Email your voice memo to NSQ@Freakonomics.com. Let us know your name and if you’d like to remain anonymous. We might use your voice on the show!
Coming up next week on No Stupid Questions: Stephen and Angela answer a listener’s question about whether or not it’s okay to enjoy life while the world is burning.
DUBNER: There are wildfires, there are brutal dictators, there are mysterious diseases, why bother?
That’s next week on No Stupid Questions.
* * *
No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, People I (Mostly) Admire, and Freakonomics, M.D. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was mixed by Eleanor Osborne, with help from Jeremy Johnston. Katherine Moncure is our associate producer. Our executive team is Neal Carruth, Gabriel Roth, and Stephen Dubner. Our theme song is “And She Was” by Talking Heads — special thanks to David Byrne and Warner Chappell Music. If you’d like to listen to the show ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. You can follow us on Twitter @NSQ_Show and on Facebook @NSQShow. If you have a question for a future episode, please email it to firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more, or to read episode transcripts, visit Freakonomics.com/NSQ. Thanks for listening!
DUBNER: Constantly trying to suck less. That’s our corporate motto. Suck a little bit less every day.
- William H. Frey, professor of neurology at the University of Minnesota; founder and co-director of the Alzheimer’s Research Center at Regions Hospital.
- Franco Harris, professional football player.
- Adam Smith, 18th-century economist and moral philosopher.
- Ad Vingerhoets, professor of clinical psychology at Tilburg University.
- “Only the Good Cry: Investigating the Relationship Between Crying Proneness and Moral Judgments and Behavior,” by Janis H. Zickfeld, Shanmukh Kamble, Romy Oostelbos, and Ad Vingerhoets (Social Psychological Bulletin, 2022).
- “A Clinical Practice Review of Crying Research,” by Lauren M. Bylsma, Asmir Gračanin, and Ad J. J. M. Vingerhoets (Psychotherapy, 2021).
- “The Riddle of Human Emotional Crying: A Challenge for Emotion Researchers,” by Ad J. J. M. Vingerhoets and Lauren M. Bylsma (Emotion Review, 2016).
- “Trump: I haven’t cried since ‘I was a baby,’” by Judy Kurtz (The Hill, 2015).
- “Man, Weeping,” by Sandra Newman (Aeon, 2015).
- “Why Do Women Cry More Than Men?” by Melissa Dahl (The Cut, 2015).
- “Why We Cry,” by Lorna Collier (Monitor on Psychology, 2014).
- “What Drives the Smile and the Tear: Why Women Are More Emotionally Expressive Than Men,” by Agneta Fischer and Marianne LaFrance (Emotion Review, 2014).
- “The Ignorant and the Furious: Video and Catharsis,” by the Association for Psychological Science (2010).
- Confessions of a Hero-Worshiper, by Stephen Dubner (2003).
- “Why Cry? Adaptive Significance of Intensive Crying in Human Infants,” by Virpi Lummaa, Timo Vuorisalo, Ronald G.Barr, and Liisa Lehtonen (Evolution and Human Behavior, 1998).
- “The Enduring Mystery of Tears,” by Curt Suplee (The Washington Post, 1987).
- Doctor Dolittle, by Hugh Lofting (1920).