Why do People Cry?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Humans produce tears for a variety of reasons. Some of these have nothing to do with why people cry. If you’re cutting up an onion or suffering from seasonal allergies, your eyes may be brimming with tears. This is not emotional crying, but instead it is the act of the eyes producing tears to lubricate the eyes. In fact there are three types of tears: basal, reflex and emotional, which all occur for different reasons.

People often cry when they've suffered a loss, such as at a funeral.
People often cry when they've suffered a loss, such as at a funeral.

Basal tears are released regularly to keep your eyes lubricated. Reflex tears are those produced when irritants bother our eyes. Emotional tears are produced in the grip of extreme emotions: sadness, anger, and sometimes even laughter. Furthermore, we tend to produce emotional tears when we get injured, and some researchers suggest that the body doesn’t really differentiate between emotional and physical pain, even if the mind can.

In some cultures, it's OK for women to cry, but not for men.
In some cultures, it's OK for women to cry, but not for men.

There are many theories on why people cry emotional tears. One such is that there are proteins in tears, which are the same components in certain hormones. One of the biggest of these is prolactin, present in greater levels in women than in men. Women use prolactin in large supply when they are nursing infants, and in the first few days after having a baby, breastfeeding that baby may produce very strong emotional response as prolactin levels increase massively. Women also report feeling very calm, sleeping or spaced out during the first few weeks after a baby’s birth because of the high levels of this hormone.

Laughter can cause people to shed tears.
Laughter can cause people to shed tears.

Not only does prolactin stimulate lactation, but it also tends to have an overall calming effect. It may be the case that prolactin, and other hormones like it are part of a mood regulation system. When we perceive physical or emotional pain, these hormones may build, and produce greater amounts of tears. Thus people cry, and this release may be calming too, helping to restore mood.

Extreme anger can lead to crying.
Extreme anger can lead to crying.

It also should be kept in mind that crying is the natural province of the infant. Babies come into this world and most immediately begin crying (though they don't always produce tears immediately), and they will use this communication device pre-language development to communicate all their desires. But, studies also show that boy’s cries may be ignored for slightly longer, and especially in certain cultures, girl’s cries are attended to immediately. From birth we may be taught there are immediate rewards for crying, or that it is of little purpose, depending on our gender.

Experiencing a traumatic event can cause crying.
Experiencing a traumatic event can cause crying.

Whether or not people cry as adults may have much to do with the way their society treats tears. In many societies, tears in men are only acceptable at a few occasions, perhaps a funeral. This is unfortunate indeed; especially when boy children are told not to cry regularly, and many men have felt cut off from expressing emotions of grief that could help them heal from emotional wounds. Instead anger becomes the preferred emotion because it is more “male,” and men may need to work very long and hard to access the grief behind anger.

Boys might learn early on that crying will be ignored, but for girls it often means immediate attention.
Boys might learn early on that crying will be ignored, but for girls it often means immediate attention.

Women, conversely, may cry more easily not simply because they release more prolactin, but because conventionally, their society accepts their crying. When people cry, especially women, they may be viewed as “emotional” as though this is a negative characteristic. On the other hand, most therapists will point out that crying is likely to be a great way to release an emotional response and restore the mind to a quieter place. The man who bottles his emotions may ultimately be more negatively emotional than the woman who lets her emotions out in the release of crying.

The death of a spouse may make their partner cry.
The death of a spouse may make their partner cry.

Despite these theories, no single answer exists as to why people cry from emotional and physical pain. Having the tear ducts well up with unshed tears is much more easily explained when something is bothering your eyes. There is suggestion though that there are both nature/nurture reasons for why people cry. Women may have more prolactin, but in some cultures men can be found weeping and sobbing just as openly as women. There may be evolutionary, cultural and physiological components all combined to explain our tears. What is understood is that crying, especially in periods of grief or strong emotion, is often emotionally beneficial, as long as the person does not feel guilty for having displayed such emotion.

A bereaved person may cry during grief therapy.
A bereaved person may cry during grief therapy.
In some cultures, the cries of baby girls are attended to sooner than those of baby boys.
In some cultures, the cries of baby girls are attended to sooner than those of baby boys.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


People can cry because they are frustrated. Family frustration, frustrated at why someone has to go, why they can't get better grades, just frustrated about something. Probably most people cry because of that.

Also, how can someone be called a man if they listen to society's pressures and telling them things like "you can't cry!" Being afraid of what society think of you and listening to thing like that, I believe that would be more like cowardly, not manly.

Crying shows that you're human, and that you are strong, not afraid to show your feelings to someone.

Show them manly tears!


Crying is natural. We were built to do it. Everyone should cry and not feel embarrassed


People cry when they have the hurt ripped out of them. I'm sensitive, and I seem to be suffering this a lot recently. I wonder if I need antidepressants.


I cry because I'm sensitive. Everything makes me cry.


When you can't cry, then you've got real problems.


When people feel really bad from their inside of the heart, they start to cry.


People cry because they want to show their emotions and what they feel inside. Sometimes because they are happy but mostly because they are sad. Anger can also make people cry.


My favorite line is "crying is likely to be a great way to release an emotional response and restore the mind to a quieter place." They said that a man should never cry even in private? I think it's not acceptable because even men have emotions also. It is said in the blog that crying is the best way in releasing your negative emotions.


i really got angry with my husband when he scolded my son because of crying. he said, he doesn't want to listen to anybody who is crying. he definitely hates to hear someone crying, and he said such by shouting when in fact we were just three feet away from each other.

I believe crying is not a sin. we cry for a reason. men who do not cry are certainly those who were deprived of expressing their emotions as kids, thus i pity these men -- and that includes my husband.


I am shocked by #9. How can you say men should never cry even in private? That they should man up? When my mom died I know my dad cried and I can't believe anyone would blame him for it. I'm sorry, but I find that horribly offensive. A real man doesn't let others push their unreasonable standards on him but he is what he is.


i don't know why we cry, but i don't really cry. We men are designed not to cry like a woman because we should comfort females because they are more emotional.

i love it when my girlfriend cries because i can show her that i care, and I can hug her for a long time! Yeah! I'm good.


i think crying is a false sense of security because after you've cried yourself into a good mood, the fact remains that whatever made you cry hasn't gone away, i.e., funerals. Everybody cries at a funeral but their loved one will never get out or the casket to console them so the question is the point of why we cry isn't that important when you realize that it has no real effect on anything beside sympathetic people and even then it has no effect on anything. crying isn't even a sad thing to see. someone do people cry to get out of stuff. it's stupid.


I think children at a young age cry at almost anything because their minds haven't adapted to the world, so when they get hurt, or put in a tight spot which would usually merely annoy us, their brain says the only solution is to cry


Emotional/mental pain has limits. that's what causes you to get depressed, sad, suicide, screw your life, etc. You can die mentally and still be alive.

If at a young age someone is abused or raped, they'll most certainly become hollow, so how can you say Man up? everyone should cry. everyone should understand their mistakes and repent, ask for help when in the face of danger.

We are a social animal. Try to do, fix, or keep everything to yourself and you'll soon see what happens.


It is all right for a man to cry, as long as it is not too long. Otherwise, pent up anger takes its place. Personally, I think society is really screwed up to impose such standards on men. We are human beings first.


I agree with number 9. Physical pain has limits, emotional/mental pain has no limits and no threshold. Miss you, Piper.


they cry because something bad happened.


Men, you should be ashamed of yourself if you cry. No reason to show those negative emotions! Whether public or private, it should never happen. Breakups, deaths, funerals, etc., not acceptable! This world is too soft today! Man up!


I cry mostly for emotional pain because I find it hurts more than physical pain, in a sense.

Cuts and bruises fade but emotional scars may never leave you.

When I was younger I cried more for physical pain.

I think that it's because young children get hurt, physically more easily. When you start growing up you face more emotional problems, that's when the emotional tears really kick in.


i think that crying is sensitive for everybody, and that crying is natural.


people always think they cry because they're sad. But crying can come from frustration, anger, strong emotions or hurt. Not from just sadness.


People cry because we have complex emotions and crying is one of the emotions which few animals can display.


Another way to ask this question: Why don't animals cry? (Or do they?)


here is why i think people cry. they cry because they are sad.

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