I’m a crier. I’m not ashamed. I’m a man who cries. Not in real life of course, but when watching movies. I’ve not quite worked out what the triggers are, but they often involve the relationships between parents and children.
Consider the movie Field of Dreams, which is, on paper, a bizarre tale in which Kevin Costner builds a baseball pitch in the middle of his corn crop because he heard a voice. Costner thinks he’s bringing back the shamed player Shoeless Joe Jackson from the grave, but actually he ends up meeting (spoiler alert!) his father as a young man. In those final scenes, I’m in pieces.
Field of Dreams is deliberately emotionally manipulative. How about this: I also cried in The Force Awakens. I sat with my daughter, clutching each other’s hands, and we were both in tears. She’s 10. She’s also female. According to society’s rules, I supposedly have no such excuse.
Is it unusual that I regularly cry as a man? It’s just one of the questions I’ve been looking into recently for the BBC Radio 4 series The Curious Cases of Rutherford and Fry. My co-presenter Hannah and I have been exploring the science of crying: if men do cry less, why is that? What are the benefits of shedding tears? And evolutionarily-speaking, why do we even cry at all?
The answer to the question of whether I am unusual is straightforward. According to pretty much every study done, women do cry more than men, and this result has been consistent since we’ve been looking. Psychologist William Frey’s study in 1982 calculated that women cry on average 5.3 times a month, whereas men in all their manliness only allow eye leakage 1.3 times a month. On average when a woman cries it’s likely to be for five or six minutes, compared with two or three minutes for a manly weep.
Dutch psychologist Ad Vingerhoets from Tilberg University is the man when it comes to weeping. He’s one of only a few researchers who pursue tears, and his results have all confirmed that there’s a gender dichotomy, and that it starts in childhood. In infancy crying is gender neutral and universal: all babies do it equally. (Evolutionary psychologists argue that crying in babies exists as an acoustic indicator of parental need. I think parents might have already figured that one out.)
So what explains the gender differences that emerge as children age into adults? It’s clear that cultural factors play a significant role. Indeed, indirect findings support that notion: studies repeated in different countries revealed that people cry more in countries where crying is more socially acceptable. Vingerhoets also found that more weeping occurs in affluent countries, the implication being that prosperity somehow frees us to be more emotionally expressive, and turns people into cry-babies.
But he thinks that it’s not only social conditioning that restricts men’s crying, but testosterone too. He’s reported that prostrate cancer patients being treated with drugs that lower testosterone levels cry more – though you might argue that they’re a bit more emotionally fragile because they’ve got cancer.
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