Ever thought the water in your eyes could captivate millions? Amidst a downtrodden economy, international wars, and many other national and global crises, Jason Mesnick-the most recent incarnation of ABC's "The Bachelor"-has the nation buzzing with a perennial question: Is it alright (for men) to cry?
Crying is part of life. It's the first thing most of us do when we're born. People cry out of elation, sadness, or physical pain. Crying over social and physically painful events underscores the commonality of brain systems designated to respond to both types of events (see my earlier post for more discussion of this issue; You can also click here to participate in a study that examines physical and psychological relationships). Most people in most cultures think crying is good for them. Some of the most brilliant minds in recorded history agree. Aristotle, Darwin, and Freud all believed that crying releases negative energy, thereby bringing the suffering person some relief. As a youngster, I was fed similar notions on the benefits of crying from my parents. When I was embarrassed to cry, my parents encouraged me to let my feelings out. Being musicians, they taught me to sing the song "It's all right to cry" (from the musical "Free to be You and Me") whenever I was unsure about whether I should cry. Was this a good strategy?
The evidence is mixed on whether crying is good for you. Jonathan Rottenberg, Lauren Bylsma, and Ad Vinherhoets recently published an insightful review of the literature on crying. These authors suggest that the question on the benefits of crying depends on many things, including the social context, how the study was conducted (laboratory versus outside the laboratory), characteristics of the triggering event, and personality traits. Thus, scientific evidence suggests that letting the tears flow is not a sure fire method for feeling better.
This brings us back to Jason Mesnick. Why did his deluge of tears spark interest from viewers, talk-show hosts, and bloggers? Cultural norms supply part of the answer. There are cultural norms that admonish male crying to a greater extent than female crying. People who violate cultural norms capture attention. But why do norms against male crying exist in the first place? If most people believe crying will make you feel better (though we now know that these are intuitions more than facts), then how can people support norms that exclude men from enjoying the same benefits of crying that women enjoy?
One reason is that violating cultural norms is deeply linked to the prospect of social rejection. People who act against norms for desirable behavior frequently experience social rejection. Kids who break rules for appropriate responding experience rejection from playgroups. Adults who behave in ways that go against societal laws experience exclusion from society through imprisonment. Because most people act in accordance with social norms, violations of those norms seem especially captivating. Even minor norm violations, such as those shown by Jason Mesnick, are enough to get people's attention.
The silver lining, as you may know, is that not all norm violations result in rejection. Despite his river of tears, Jason ultimately was accepted by the girl he really wanted.