Crying men

Charles Darwin thought it was a coincidence of nature: why cry? With tears? The natural scientist had laid the foundations of the theory of evolution, but this simple body function was a mystery to him. Tears wash away the dust and keep the eyes moist, perhaps also the nostrils, wrote Darwin in his work "The Expression of Emotions in Humans and Animals". But the unrestrained sobbing that the researcher often observed in his own children puzzled him. He compared crying to a violent shaking that grips the body in pain or cold, an accidental reaction without much point.

Darwin wrote down these thoughts almost 150 years ago, and the question of why only humans shed emotional tears still haunts scientists - with no end in sight. Sigmund Freud believed that crying cleansed the psyche, just as the kidneys and liver clean the blood. Others took tears as a sign of surrender to victorious opponents. But why should only people sob when animals are fighting too?

Psychologist Ad Vingerhoets from Tilburg University in the Netherlands believes that tears are due to man's long childhood. "The offspring of every mammal make noises to show discomfort or when danger is approaching," says Vingerhoets. A useful invention when creatures are small and helpless - but just as potentially dangerous. Because screams could also attract hunters and thus mean death. Human children need protection from their parents for a particularly long time. "It was evolutionarily important to get rid of the dangers of acoustic signals and to replace them with a safer means," says Vingerhoets. This sure remedy could have been tears, writes Vingerhoets in his book "Why Only Humans Weep". Crying would be a light version of roaring that attracts parents' attention but keeps robbers away.

tears of joy

The approach sounds logical, but it doesn't necessarily explain why adults sometimes sob uncontrollably. It seems clear that the function of tears changes in the course of life. Children often cry out of fear or pain, adults more often out of empathy. The social component becomes more important. "Older people cry more out of love, out of compassion," says Vingerhoets. The psychologist has been on the trail of tears since 1988. Somebody asked him at a party whether crying was important for health - Vingerhoets had no answer ready, the question has captivated him and his doctoral students ever since. Only a handful of researchers around the world are studying the causes of crying.

But the more studies they do, the more tears test subjects shed in their laboratories, the more puzzling it just seems to get. More than 5500 people in 37 countries asked researchers around Dianne van Hemert from the Dutch research center TNO about their wine habits, such as how often they had cried in the last four weeks - using anonymized questionnaires to get honest answers. Of course, 37 countries do not represent the entire world, but a clear trend was discernible: It was not the countries where there is the greatest inequality and oppression that are the most sobbing. Rather, the states whose inhabitants are considered to be particularly happy or which are comparatively well developed.

Swedes and Brazilians cry the most in the world, and Italians are the biggest crybugs among men. German women and men are each in third place. "In happy and affluent countries people cry more," write the authors in the specialist magazine Cross-Cultural Research. So crying is not an expression of misfortune, but rather a sign of freedom of expression and tolerance. People have to be able to trust themselves to show their feelings. This doesn't always work in autocratic states, there is a kind of cultural tear blocker.