September 29, 2009, Updated September 13, 2012

Tears are not a sign of weakness. They are an evolutionary adaptation designed to bring people closer together, according to an Israeli researcher.

We cry when we are hurt, sad, or moved, but now an Israeli evolutionary biologist has shown that tears also have emotional benefits and can help to build and strengthen our relationships.

Dr. Oren Hasson of the Zoology Department of Tel Aviv University believes that while tears remain a clear signal of physiological distress, they also function as an evolution-based mechanism to bring people closer together.

“Crying is a highly evolved behavior,” explains Hasson, whose research attempts to discern the evolutionary reasons for emotional tears. “Tears give clues and reliable information about submission, needs and social attachments between one another.

“My analysis suggests that by blurring vision, tears lower defences and reliably function as signals of submission, a cry for help, and even as a mutual display of attachment and as a group display of cohesion,” he reports.

The tears that bind

Hasson’s research, which was recently published in the international journal Evolutionary Psychology, investigates the different kinds of tears we shed – from tears of joy, to sadness and grief – as well as the authenticity or sincerity of the tears. Crying, Hasson asserts, has unique benefits among friends and others in our various communities.

Approaching the topic with the deductive tools of an evolutionary biologist, Hasson investigated the use of tears in various emotional and social situations.

Aside from enhancing attachments and friendships, multiple studies across cultures show that crying helps us to bond with our families, loved ones and allies, says Hasson. Tears signal vulnerability and that you love someone, a good evolutionary strategy to emotionally bind people closer to you.

“Emotional tears signal appeasement, a need for attachment in times of grief, and a validation of emotions among family, friends and members of a group,” says Hasson. “This is strictly human.”

Mercy from an enemy

Tears can also be used, however, to elicit mercy from an antagonistic enemy, he claims. They are useful in evoking sympathy and even the strategic assistance of people who are not part of the enemy group.

Not all tears are acceptable, however, and in certain environments they are regarded as a weakness or even taboo. Crying in front of your boss at work, for instance, is a big no no – especially for men.

“The efficacy of this evolutionary behavior always depends on who you’re with when you cry those buckets of tears, and it probably won’t be effective in places like work, when emotions should be hidden,” admits Hasson.

Hasson is a marriage therapist, and he brings his research conclusions into the clinic. “It is important to legitimize emotional tears in relationships,” he says. “Too often, women who cry feel ashamed, silly or weak, when in reality they are simply connected with their feelings, and want sympathy and hugs from their partners.”

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