Criers are perceived differently depending on the context of the tears, according to findings published in the journal Emotion. When a crier is perceived as helpless or viewed as crying without a clear reason, they are rated as less competent. But when a crier is perceived as honest, they are rated as more competent.
Emotional crying is a uniquely human behavior that may function in part to bond people together. Scientists believe crying elicits perceptions of warmth, and tears draw people in to support the crier. But beyond these positive effects, there is evidence to suggest that crying elicits perceptions of lower competence.
Study authors Monika Wróbel of the University of Lodz and her colleagues say that tears might be seen as a reflection of an inability to control one’s emotions and that people who cry may therefore be viewed as less competent. But inconsistent findings on the subject led the researchers to propose that the extent that criers are perceived as incompetent likely depends on the context of the crying.
“We were interested in this topic because popular media frequently portray the criers as incompetent,” explained Wróbel. “However, research in this area provides an incoherent picture, with some studies showing that tearful individuals may indeed be perceived as less competent, while others report no such effect. We took a closer look at this apparent paradox, by trying to identify the specific conditions under which tearful individuals are perceived as incompetent.”
To explore if and when crying affects judgments of competence, the researchers analyzed data from the Cross-Cultural Tears Project, a large undertaking that involved 56 labs from 41 different countries. In total, the data included responses from 7,007 subjects between the ages of 18 and 79.
All labs followed the same design — subjects were shown pictures of four randomly selected faces that were either showing tears or not showing tears. The faces were taken from the Chicago Face Database, and in the case of the tearful faces, the tears were digitally added to the images.
Each photo was accompanied by a short text describing the context of the photo, which was either positive, negative, or neutral. For example, a positive situation was ‘As the picture was taken [the target] finally reunited with a loved one she had not seen for many years at her home.’ The participants rated their perceptions of each target across various dimensions (e.g., warmth, attractiveness) but the main interest of the current study was their evaluation of the target’s competence.
Overall, the researchers found little evidence that tearfulness influenced perceptions of competence. However, it appeared that the situational context of the crying mattered. First, crying faces attached to positive and negative situations received higher ratings of appropriateness compared to crying faces attached to neutral situations. Next, the analysis revealed significant indirect effects for helplessness and perceived appropriateness of the tears on perceptions of competence.
Crying faces received lower ratings of competence when the target was perceived as helpless, or perceived to be crying inappropriately. By contrast, honesty appeared to boost perceptions of competence while crying — crying faces were perceived as more honest, which in turn, was associated with higher ratings of competence.
“Contrary to popular belief, shedding tears does not mean that you are generally incompetent,” Wróbel told PsyPost. “Criers may be perceived as lacking competence only in some specific conditions. For instance, when a person is shedding tears in an emotionally neutral situation (e.g., while doing the laundry) and the observers cannot tell what the reason for crying is, they perceive the tears as inappropriate and, as a result, the crier as incompetent. This means that tears are always evaluated within the contexts in which they appear.”
The study authors say these findings fall in line with the passionate restraint hypothesis, which suggests that crying can increase perceptions of competence if the crier is perceived as being in control of their emotions and authentic. When a person is crying in a context that does not seem to warrant tears (e.g., a trip to the grocery store) this person may be perceived as unable to control their emotions, and therefore, incompetent.
Wróbel and team conclude that while there is likely no overall effect of crying on perceptions of competence, tears can sometimes increase or decrease impressions of competence depending on the situational context. However, the researchers note that their analyses were limited by secondary data, and any methodological limitations from the original study likely carried over to the current research.
“Our results are limited by the fact that we relied on already existing data and hence were limited to the variables that were measured by the authors of the original research,” Wróbel said. “For instance, we found that the presence of tears was associated with both helplessness and honesty. Interestingly, though, helplessness decreased perceived competence, whereas honesty increased it. Therefore, it is possible that associating tearful individuals with both helplessness and honesty cancelled out the overall effect of tears on competence ratings. However, future research needs to directly address this possibility.”
“Overall, our analysis shows that, similar to other emotional expressions, tears cannot be studied outside of the context in which they are being shed, because in some contexts they may be evaluated positively, whereas in others shedding tears may put the crier in a bad light,” the researcher added. “Therefore, to identify the roots of popular negative beliefs about tears, we need to focus on how the context modifies the overall perception of tears.”
The study, “Tears Do Not Influence Competence in General, but Only Under Specific Circumstances: A Systematic Investigation Across 41 Countries”, was authored by Monika Wróbel, Julia Wągrowska, Janis H. Zickfeld, and Niels van de Ven.