Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Psychology of Sorrow

In my previous post, I brooded over the curious penchant of people seeking fear and terror in theater. Equally bizarre is their willingness to watch movies that make them cry. Isn't crying, almost by definition, the most negative experience a person can have? So how is it possible that tearjerkers sell tickets?

What is even more curious is that the strangest things make people tear up. For example, one of the movies that made me cry is Hilary and Jackie.

This bio-pic about the cellist Jacqueline du Pré and her sister Hilary opens with two little girls frolicking about a rocky coast, reciting nursery rhymes, oblivious to the treacherous rocks and cliffs that surround them. Suddenly the sisters freeze in their spots as they see a beautiful woman walk toward them. The woman steps to Jackie and whispers something in her ear before walking away. Hilary asks Jackie, "What did she say?" Jackie, who seems quite shaken, answers, "That everything will be alright." The two girls seem terrified. "Why would somebody say something like that," protests Hilary.

From there, the story unfolds as Jackie slowly grows into the world-famous cellist and Hilary a happy mother and wife. It follows the two sisters' hopes and dreams, fears and triumphs, and adventures and falls. By the end of the movie (*Here comes a spoiler*), Jackie is afflicted with multiple sclerosis, and loses her ability to play music and even the affection to her husband, Daniel Barenboim.

Debilitated and bed-ridden, Jacqueline recalls her childhood and the playful frolics in the rocky coast. A beautiful grown woman approaches the little Hilary and Jackie and whispers something in Jackie's ear. "What did she say," asks Hilary. "That everything will be alright," answers Jackie. And that opens a floodgate in my eyes.

In this blogpost, I'll mull over this strange phenomena, that is crying at the movies, reviewing very interesting and insightful responses I received from a quick and dirty survey I had posted in this online forum, as well as some relevant literature in psychology.

I received eight sets of responses for the survey, seven from men and one from a woman. Six responses were posted on the forum and two were sent to me through personal messages.

Q1: Do you sometimes actively seek sad movies?

4 people plainly said no, and 1 person said yes but just to prove them wrong

1 said rarely
1 said, "Sort of" (the one woman respondent)
1 said, "sure do."

In summary, while the majority of respondents answered that they don’t actively seek sad movies, some people actually said they do. Personally, I don't suppose I look for sad movies. As one of the respondents put it, I look for a good movie. As it happens, many good movies do have sad moments.

Q2: Do you feel good or bad after crying at the movies?

A few people said they feel bad after crying at the movies, especially if the crying happens in public. (Words such as “cheap”, “manipulative,” "depressed," and “embarrassed” were mentioned in the responses.) While nobody said they always enjoy crying, the majority indicated that crying can be a positive experience depending on the circumstance. Two people specifically said crying can make one feel better when done in private. (One of them mentioned the word “cleansed.”).

Here I might note that research findings offer conflicting evidence regarding the outcome of crying. Some studies suggest crying improves moods and has long term health benefits (Borgquist, 1906; Bindra, 1972; Cornelius, 1981; Frey et al., 1983; Lombardo et al., 1983; Crepeau, 1980; Hastrup, 1986; Vingerhoets & Betcht, 1997, all as reported in Cornelius, 2001), while others indicate just the opposite (Gross et al., 1994; Labott & Martin, 1990; Vingerhoets et al. 1993, all as reported in Cornelius, 2001).

Q3: What makes (or has made) you cry at the movies?

A few respondents mentioned grave situations, such as death, in a movie make them cry. One person emphasized investment to a character. That is, in my interpretation, we cry in sympathy for the character. Three people mentioned that they cried when a movie reminded them of their own personal memories.

Most interestingly though, cute snuggly things were frequently mentioned as something that triggers the tear reaction. At least four people (all male) mentioned animal or animation as something that induces tears somewhere in their responses. Many Pixar and animal movies were referred to. Even a fabric softener commercials with a teddy bear in it was brought up!! No literature research prepared me for this, although I should have known better, because, don't these manipulative bastards at Pixar always do the trick on me? But how on earth can you explain this bizarre phenomenon of cuddly things making adult men tear up?

Indulge me if you will and let me compose a wild theory of my own:

Prolactin is a hormone best known for its influence on lactation after birth. This hormone is generally found in higher levels in women than in men, and in high concentrations in tears and the tear gland. According to this online article, "in the mother, prolactin is released in response to suckling, promoting milk production as well as maternal behaviors. Prolactin relaxes the mother, and in the early months, creates a bit of fatigue during a nursing session so she has no strong desire to hop up and do other things. Prolactin promotes caregiving behaviors and, over time, directs brain reorganization to favor these behaviors . Father's prolactin levels begin to elevate during mother's pregnancy, but most of the rise in the male occurs after many days of cohabitation with the infant. ... it is generally considered a stress hormone. In parents, it serves as a parenting hormone."

It has been reported that lowering the prolactin level by administration of a drug reduces pathological crying, and that injecting prolactin in ducks increase secretions of a gland equivalent to the human lacrimal gland that produces tear (Vingerhoets et al. 2000).

Can it be that the baby-looking mascot in fabric softener commercial and Pixar characters trigger some sort of parental instinct in our very masculine respondents and causes their prolactin level shoot up, and thereby making them susceptible to crying? Given that some psychologists suggest crying means "giving up" in a stressful situation (Frijda, 1986; Miceli & Castelfranchi, 2003), the link between crying and proactin, which is also a stress hormone that promotes relaxation, seems particularly noteworthy.

As for my own crying episode mentioned earlier, I don't know why I cried so much at the end of Hilary and Jackie. I don't think it was completely out of sympathy for Hilary or Jackie although there should have been some of that. Nothing in this movie really brought me any concrete personal memories back either, although I did have a long childhood in which I was always wondering rather painfully what the future might bring and whether my life would turn out to be alright. What made me cry was the line "everything will be alright" whispered to little Jackie's ear by the older Jackie who went though all the turmoil of her life and witnessed Hilary making peace with her situation. The truth was, everything was 'not alright' for them. But then, in a sense, indeed it was, if only because accepting so is the only way we can cope with the monster called life.

Q4: What's your own theory about crying?

Quite interesting (and extremely well-informed, I have to suspect) ideas have been expressed in response to this question.

One person mentioned "helplessness and loss" is a reason for crying. This is exactly what some psychologist say about crying. According to them, crying in its core is a sign of giving up something, be it a struggle for a goal, resistance to suffering, attempt to express one's feeling, or endeavor to explain something (Frijda, 1986; Miceli & Castelfranchi, 2003). The question is, what are we giving up when we cry in the theater?

Two respondents also mentioned that people may have a need to express their emotions. I guess this falls along the line with Aristotle's catharsis. One very interesting theory brought up by a respondent was that a person who is experiencing depression may want to watch a sad movie and cry at something concrete rather than staying in the vague feeling of sadness.

Another response I got was: "I think there is a similar principle at work like what drives us to watch stuff that scares us, it’s about the pleasure of experiencing all the thrills while sharing non of the dangers. And sad movies allow us to work through negative feelings, in a safe and controlled environment." In a study Goldstein (2009) asked her participants to rate their emotional responses while watching a sad movie and while recalling their past sad experiences. She found that people reported significantly higher levels of anxiety in the latter condition, while reporting similar levels of sadness in both. Goldstein speculated that "pure sadness that is not mixed with anxiety is not so unpleasurable" but may help us better understand and prepare for the real life (Goldstein, 2009, p. 237).

The safe distance that a drama places between its viewer and the object of their emotion is sometimes called, "aesthetic distance." Scheff (2007) suggested that painful emotions can be pleasurable at an optimal distance, and this is why catharsis, or crying at the movies, might be a satisfying experience. He contended that the essence of catharsis involves "the re-experiencing of past emotional crises in a context of complete security" (Scheff, 2007, p.101).

I'm not sure if what I seek is "the pleasure of unadulterated sadness" as Goldstein puts it (very aptly I might add), although I can certainly see this might be one of the reasons why some people watch sad movies.

Personally, what I appreciate greatly in some movies is the way they illustrate certain truths about life. A work of fiction or music can materialize complex and abstract ideas into something very concrete -- a personal story or a physical sound, not just to be acknowledged, but to be felt acutely.

When the adult Jackie whispers into the young Jackie's ear that everything will be alright at the end of the movie, an acknowledgement is made that, in spite of all our anxieties, struggles, and sufferings, in a sense, everything is just alright in the end. Crying at that moment was like thinking this thought, not with my mind, but with my whole body.


Cornelius, J. J. (2001). Crying and catharsis. In J.A. Kottler & M. J. Montgomery (Eds.). Adult Crying: A Biopsychosocial Approach. Philadephia, PA: Bruner-Routlege.

Frijda, N. (1986). Emotions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Goldstein, T. R. (2009). The pleasure of unadulterated sadness: experiencing sorrow in fiction, nonfiction, and "in person." Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 3 (4), 232-237.

Miceli, M. & Castelfranchi, C. (2003). Crying: discussing its basic reasons and uses. New Ideas in Psychology, 21, 247-273.

Scheff, T. J. (2007). Catharsis and other heresies: a theory of emotion. Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology, 1 (3), 98-113.

Vingerhoets, A. J. J. M., Cornelius, R. R., Van Heck, G. L., & Becht, M. C. (2000). Adult crying: a model and review of the literature. Review of General Psychology, 4 (4), 354-377.


Gnasche said...

I was one of the males who mentioned animals. As far as your prolactin theory, I must add that human babies make me nauseous. I hate the way they look, sound, breathe, cry and even laugh. Why anyone would actively pursue having one of those disgusting creatures in their life is beyond me.

I know I'm in the minority here, so it could be one of those points that you should ignore, and I'm speaking in hyperbole for comic effect, but, seriously, babies - Blech!

Gnasche said...

Oh, and great post! Good analysis.

Chat Noir Studios said...

LOL, maybe you suffer from MPSS (Misguided Prolactin Secretion Syndorome -- prolactin level going up at the presence of animals rather than babies :P).

I have nothing against the way babies look (at least some of them), but they scare hell out of me for the life long suffering ahead of them. Ah, seriously.

Chat Noir Studios said...

BTW, MPSS was a totally lame attempt of mine to make a joke.

I find the output of the discipline of psychology tantalizing but indecisive on most of the questions I have. Still, I do believe the "science" of psychology offers one of the better ways to go about looking for some answers...

Richard Grove said...

I've really enjoyed this post and also the previous one on fear/horror. It's a real pleasure to read ideas that are interesting and well developed. I think sentiment has a lot to do with how stories/characters make us cry. It's different for each person (the triggers, that is).

Thanks again for a wonderful post. Really got me to thinking.

Sohbet said...

Wonderful post thanks..