Why emotional tears flow with us -

Five thematic crying triggers identified

Emotional crying seems to be a purely human trait. But what makes us cry? Researchers have now studied this. They identified five reasons for emotional tears.

In several studies, researchers from the universities of Ulm and Sussex have investigated why we cry in certain situations. They were able to identify a number of thematic triggers often associated with emotional tears, based on a total of over a thousand adult reports. These include the categories of loneliness, helplessness, being overwhelmed, harmony, and media consumption. Her work has been published in the journal Motivation and Emotion.

Different types of tears

As stated in a recent statement from the University of Ulm, humans are probably the only creature capable of shedding emotional tears, i.e. crying because of feelings. These include tears of sadness, fear or anger, but also tears of joy.

In addition to the emotional tears examined, there are also basal tears, which always keep the eyes moist and protect them. The third type are reflex tears that occur, for example, when it is cold, windy or when chopping onions.

According to the new study by researchers from the University of Ulm and the University of Sussex in Brighton, Britain, most episodes in which adults cry for emotional reasons can be reliably classified in one of five categories: loneliness, helplessness, submersion, harmony and media consumption.

Basic psychological needs

The division into five categories is based on the consideration that emotional tears always occur when basic psychological needs are either violated or met very intensively.

“Similar to basic biological needs such as sleep or food, frustration or satisfaction with these psychological factors is thought to influence our subjective well-being,” says first author Michael Barthelmäs, who is now a postdoc in the Department of Psychology. social at University of Ulm.

In research, the needs of 'proximity' (to feel connected), 'autonomy' (to be able to influence things) and 'competence' (to be able to achieve something successfully) have emerged as central basic psychological needs.

Different triggers

As predicted by the scientists, in the study the "loneliness" was characterized in particular by a felt frustration of the need for closeness. Tears of lovesickness or homesickness were classified in this category.

Tears of the "Harmony" category, on the other hand, were characterized by an intense satisfaction of the need for closeness and occurred, for example, in the form of tears of joy during a wedding celebration.

Tears in response to news of death (frustration of autonomy) were an example of "helplessness"; “Crush” tears have often been reported in the workplace (competence frustration).

According to the information, one in four episodes observed falls into the category of "media consumption", which has several particularities. Compared to the other categories, the crying person is affected only indirectly and the tears appear "representatively".

The trigger is an experience that happens to the main character in a book or movie that the person sympathizes with. Also, tears can be shed in drama, but so can comedy, so in this category there can be tears of joy and tears of sadness.

Three studies conducted

The researchers conducted a total of three studies in which students were interviewed in addition to people from the general population. The average age of the participants was 30.3 years, the proportion of female subjects was 64%.

In two studies, subjects were asked in online surveys to provide information about the last episode during which they shed emotional tears.

In a third study, as part of a 30-day electronic diary study, participants were asked once a day via smartphone about how they felt and about crying.

There was a tendency that young people cried more often than old people because they were overwhelmed.

Additionally, fewer impotence episodes were reported in the diary study than in the two retrospective studies. It could therefore be that a death message is more associated with crying than other categories. This means that study participants remember it better and talk about it more often.

Exploring Emotional Tears

The new research fills a gap in research on emotional tears. The classification forms an important cornerstone in future research on the phenomenon of emotional tears.

"So far, we know relatively little about the role that emotional tears play in mental illness," says Professor Johannes Keller, head of the department of social psychology at the University of Ulm.

“Furthermore, there is a lack of systematic knowledge about how tears regulate social interactions. This means what influence tears have, for example, on whether one person supports another,” Keller explains. Identifying the most common reasons for crying might help answer these questions in the future.(ad)

Author and source information

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This text corresponds to the specifications of the specialized medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been verified by health professionals.


University of Ulm: What makes us cry? Five Reasons for Emotional Tears Identified, (Accessed: Aug 15, 2022), Universität Ulm-Barthelmäs, M., Kesberg, R., Hermann, A. et al. : Five Reasons to Cry—FRC: A Taxonomy for Common Antecedents of Emotional Crying; in: Motivation and emotion, (published: 04/27/2022), Motivation and emotion

Important note:
This article contains general advice only and should not be used for self-diagnosis or treatment. It cannot substitute a visit to the doctor.