Why Politicians Might Be Catching the Crying Bug

As UK Minister of Health Matt Hancock cries on TV, are we being manipulated?

Posted Dec 15, 2020

On the morning of Tuesday, Dec 8th, 2020, the UK Minister for Health, Matt Hancock appeared tearful during live TV footage of the first man in Britain to receive the coronavirus vaccine.

In a public relations dream, the surreally named 81-year-old William "Bill" Shakespeare, turned out to be the first man to receive the vaccine, shortly after Grandmother Margaret Keenan, aged 90, got her jab.

A normally cynical press appeared to be similarly moved; the headline in the Daily Express read, "Matt Hancock broke down in tears on Tuesday's edition of Good Morning Britain as the first-ever coronavirus vaccine in the world had been administered in the UK," while the normally hard-nosed presenter, Piers Morgan, declared that the politician was "visibly moved."

But The Guardian maintained that the Conservative Minister’s cheeks remained stubbornly dry, so the tear looked fake to them.

In the midst of the pandemic, crying is spreading across politicians, Angela Merkel’s voice "cracked" in the same week, while passionately urging adherence to Germany’s latest coronavirus rules.

Observers report feeling more connected to people who are crying, increasing the willingness of bystanders to help. If tears signal helplessness, then are our leaders resorting to wailing; emotionally blackmailing us into lockdown, or vaccine, obedience?

Psychologist Alfonso Picó from the University of València in Spain, led a team of researchers who showed the public photographs of tearful people, and also a control group with the same pictures, with the tears digitally removed, together with brief descriptions of crimes, supposedly committed by the photographed.

The study, published in the Journal of Nonverbal Behaviour in 2020, found that crying rendered those who have committed criminal acts, appear more sincere, reliable, kind, and remorseful. Depending on how closely you feel politicians resemble criminals, it might be the findings help explain Matt Hancock’s crying.

The convicted person was viewed as kinder, more honest, and more remorseful when presented with tears than without tears. Yet this didn’t have such a powerful effect when it came to the public deciding over handing down punishment for these crimes.

Tears only affected the severity of the proposed punishment in the specific case of drunk-driving; shorter sentences were proposed for tearful drunk drivers (irrespective of gender) than for tearless drunk drivers.

The public seems alive to the manipulative aspect of crying. Humans may be unique amongst animals in shedding tears for purely emotional reasons; sincerity is more of an issue between people than it is between animals.

Psychologists Asmir Gračanin, Lauren Bylsma, and Ad Vingerhoets argue in their study entitled, "Why Only Humans Shed Emotional Tears—Evolutionary and Cultural Perspectives," that weeping galvanises support and help from others, partly because it’s potentially a strong signal of genuine despair.

The roots of crying may lie in the fact babies cry a lot because human infants are unique amongst animals in being so helpless and powerless over such an extended period, during which they are particularly vulnerable, if abandoned by their caregivers.

Unlike other primates, they cannot cling to mothers’ fur and they can’t independently motor after their mothers, for years, unlike, for example, the offspring of geese and ducks.

It is therefore no accident, according to these psychologists based at Tilburg University, The Netherlands and University of Pittsburgh, USA, that human infants initiate crying when set down and stop when scooped up. Babies hardly, if ever, cry when carried in a sling, producing continuous physical contact with Mum. Weeping becomes an essential "acoustic umbilical cord," maintaining proximity between baby and parent.

But even babies may already be crying for manipulative reasons. Bawling evolved generations ago when our ancestral environment was teeming with predators, so parents would have been motivated to pay attention urgently, and soothe a crying newborn fast, in order to prevent unwanted attention from enemies prowling the undergrowth.

A vigorously weeping baby may occupy the attention of parents so much this precludes them procreating again, so a crying baby may be in fact scheming a genetically evolved plot to reduce potential sibling competition.

If we have evolved more complex facial musculature than other animals, partly to suckle milk and to communicate emotions through facial expression, then why did we need tears on top of an upset face or screaming bellow to get the message over, that we’re not happy?

Tears draw attention to the eyes, and are difficult to make out from far away, so crying might be designed as a specific signal for those particularly close to us. The debate over whether Matt Hancock had really cried or not was partly because no one was that near to him at the time, to reveal a definitive answer. We are uncomfortable making too much eye contact with strangers, but it is required in intimate relationships.

An international study by psychologist Ad Vingerhoets, with more than 5500 adult participants, has established that the most common time to shed tears is between 7.00 p.m. and 10.00 p.m.

This is when we are most likely to be alone with intimates, hence the increased likelihood of arguments with those we are closest to. The absence of strangers who might otherwise inhibit crying, plus the fact it’s toward the end of the day when we are more tired, may also be relevant.

If crying is about intimate connection, then what is going on when people cry in public or at work? As in the case of Matt Hancock?

Kimberly Elsbach and Beth Bechky published a study entitled, ‘How Observers Assess Women Who Cry in Professional Work Contexts’ which evaluated female colleagues who teared up in the office.

If the female professionals were guilty of breaking the rules of their job, and this explained why they were sobbing, observers tended to conclude they were weak, unprofessional, and manipulative. If, however, they were not guilty of any violations, then criers were perceived more positively, as experiencing a tough situation at work, or personal issues at home

At the extreme end of professional tears, are the non-Western cultures around the world where there are even expert criers or wailers or mourners, who appear at funerals, for example. Their presence appears specifically designed to help others cry, as a cathartic and healing process. Sobbing together may serve as a particularly unique bonding experience, which we in the West look down on as excessive public emotionality.

But people don’t just lament at memorials, they also weep at weddings; in very positive situations, such as witnessing the intensification of relationships, extraordinary generosity or selflessness, and exceptional performances. Crying may signal a shared value system at these exclamation mark moments. Are we mourning or celebrating the rarity of the special commitment being demonstrated? Or both?

Asmir Gračanin, Lauren Bylsma, and Ad Vingerhoets point out in their study, that there is a remarkable custom among a substantial number of South American Indian tribes, but also in North America, Australia, India, and the Andaman Islands, where these peoples greet arriving strangers while shedding copious tears. Michael Harbsmeier, an anthropologist and historian, reports on the phenomenon in his study entitled, "Why Do the Indians cry?":

… The traveller is first led to the hut where he is to live; the women gather around the hammock in which the traveller has been laid, cover their faces with their hands and give themselves up to a quite appalling fit of weeping… the crying women then lament not only all the death and tragedies that have befallen them and their village, but also the many dangers and accidents that the traveller himself has undergone in order to reach his destination. After a while, this ceremonial crying and lamenting stops again, and the traveller can get up from his hammock and give his own account of his experiences to those gathered …

These ceremonial and ritual sharing of tears come from more ancient cultures used to surviving disaster more frequently than we in the pampered West ever had to. Does the pandemic mean we should develop in response, new similar ceremonies and rituals, to share and expunge grief?

As we all took precautions to insulate against the virus, did we experience the painful defencelessness of the more helpless, or did we protect ourselves from sharing this emotional pain? Did we only shed a tear only for those close to us and not for any strangers, unlike these supposedly more "primitive" tribes?

So, did you ‘buy’ Health Minister Matt Hancock’s own explanation for his tears which arrived as he watched someone remotely on a TV screen receive a jab; “It’s just been such a tough year for so many people,” yet none of whom he may have known personally?

Did you think he ever gets exposed in any intimate sense with genuine suffering? Or do our politicians, like us, go out of their way to shield themselves?

If you were unmoved by his crying, then maybe you don’t share his analysis, that it’s been a tough year because of the virus; as opposed to because of politicians like Matt Hancock.

William Shakespeare the famous playwright, not the recently vaccinated citizen of the UK, wrote in the play King Lear (1606); "When we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools."

Dr. Peter Bruggen passed away in 2018. While this post was written by Dr. Raj Persaud, Dr. Bruggen's name is retained biographically as a tribute to his contributions overall. 


Picó, A., Gračanin, A., Gadea, M. et al. How Visible Tears Affect Observers’ Judgements and Behavioral Intentions: Sincerity, Remorse, and Punishment. J Nonverbal Behav 44, 215–232 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10919-019-00328-9

Gracanin, A., Bylsma, L. M., & Vingerhoets, A. J. J. M. (2018). Why only humans shed emotional tears: Evolutionary and cultural perspectives. Human Nature, 29(2), 104–133.

Vingerhoets, A. J. J. M. (2013). Why only humans weep: Unravelling the mysteries of tears. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Elsbach, K. D., & Bechky, B. A. (2017). How observers assess crying in professional work contexts. Academy of Management Discoveries. https://doi.org/10.5465/amd.2016.0025.

Kimberly D. Elsbach and Beth A. Bechky How Observers Assess Women Who Cry in Professional Work Contexts Academy of Management Discoveries VOL. 4, NO. 2 | Articles normal

Gamliel, T. (2010). “She who mourns will cry”: Emotion and expertise in Yemeni-Israeli wailing. Journal of Anthropological Research, 66, 485–503

Harbsmeier, M. (1987). Why do the Indians cry? Culture and History, 1, 90–114.

Why Do the Indians Cry?Author(s): Michael Harbsmeier Source: Etnofoor, 1988, Jaarg. 1, Nr. 1 (1988), pp. 57-77