Open the Floodgates

The Science of Weepies: Why We Love Crying at the Movies

Those sniffling and sobbing their way through The Fault in Our Stars are not perverse or cruel or masochistic. They are enhancing their empathy and decision-making and social skills.

Daniel Koebe/Corbis

This weekend, thousands of people will stand in line to pay $13 for the privilege of grieving to the point of weeping. The Fault in Our Stars is opening and it’s got everything guaranteed to send you rummaging for your tissues: teenagers sick and suffering, life plans thwarted, sweet youthful love doomed.

Our love of weepies is a bit strange. It seems that one of the most flamingly obvious rules of human nature is that people tend to seek pleasure and avoid pain. So why do we pay moviemakers $13 to make us cry? Enjoying weepies might even seem perverse. If we enjoy watching a story about dying teens, does that mean we might enjoy it when teenagers really die? Of course, these are not new questions. Over 2,000 years ago, Aristotle was scratching his head about them.

Yet there’s nothing strange or perverse about watching weepies. In fact, they might help us thrive.

Of course, pleasure is certainly more, well, pleasurable than pain. If you give most people a choice between eating a cupcake and getting an electric shock, it’s the rare person who opts for the shock. However, that doesn’t mean we always seek out immediate pleasure and avoid immediate pain. We often choose to undergo unpleasant experiences, either for our own benefit or to help others. We drag ourselves out of bed to exercise. We take care of sick or disabled loved ones, sometimes for years. If we always sought only immediate pleasure, we’d all basically be Justin Biebers. And most of us have the good fortune not to be Justin Bieber.

Mary Beth Oliver, a professor of media studies at Penn State, has run studies (see here and here) that suggest that people do not only watch films for pleasure. They also watch films for insight, enlightenment, and meaningfulness. In fact, multiple studies have shown that people think the sadder a tragedy is, the better a movie it is. Glancing over a list of the Academy Awards Best Picture winners, there are many more thoroughly depressing movies than goofy fun rom-coms. There’s nothing all that contrary to human nature, then, about wanting to watch a weepie.

Oliver is right, but only partly right. Ahem. Allow me to make a confession. Once in a while, I watch made-for-TV melodramas. These movies cruelly inflict the worst on their characters. Devoted sons and husbands killed in pointless wars, mothers and daughters suffering from terminal illnesses. I know full well they’re crappy movies; they are hardly shining moments of meaningfulness in my life. I also, along with a few other people, like some horror movies and violent action movies. People willingly allow themselves to be frightened when they see the 17th Saw movie, but I’m guessing they’re not getting much in the way of insight.

So. If not for meaningfulness, what other reason is there to watch a movie that makes you feel bad?

In every culture around the world, children pretend. They pretend bananas are telephones, they comb a doll’s hair, they put on a hat and say they are firefighters. Renee Baillargeon is a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who has done some amazing studies demonstrating the complexities of the minds of infants. She has shown that children as young as 15 months old understand when adults are pretending (see here for the abstract; article behind paywall). Somewhere between 1-and-a-half to 2 years old, nearly all typically-developing children spontaneously pretend and imagine and join in pretend play with other people. (Parents, take advantage of this! If you want your child to stand still and be quiet, asking her to pretend to be a sentry guard at the princess’s castle is far more effective than just asking her to stand still and be quiet.)

Evolutionary psychology can get a bad rap. People have certainly invoked it willy-nilly. It can sometimes be a justification for cheating spouses. I can’t help it, honey. I just evolved that way.

However, when you see a psychological phenomenon that occurs across all cultures and emerges at the same time in development, that phenomenon is likely one that enhances evolutionary fitness. We should at least wonder, then, if pretending and imagining is beneficial to our survival.

Many cognitive scientists have suggested that it is. Pretend play and imagining enhances executive function, self-control, theory of mind (that is, our ability to understand what other people are thinking), creativity, and decision-making skills.

Anyone who’s ever seen a group of kids at a playground knows that children don’t only pretend happy sunshine games. They pretend to kill each other and to die, often gleefully. They will shriek and giggle, half-scared and half-delighted, when their father pretends to be a monster that will eat them up. From the start, when we imagine and pretend, we are willing to let ourselves consider sad and scary scenarios.

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Fiction is another way of imagining and pretending. In a darkened movie theater, we allow filmmakers to deliver into our minds a false world to envisage. Just as with pretend play and imagining, reading and watching fictions also has many cognitive benefits. For example, readers of fiction have been found to be more empathetic and more socially skilled than those who don’t read fiction (see one abstract here, article behind paywall).

If pretending and imagining and engaging in fictions are means by which we enhance theory of mind, decision-making, and social skills, surely they would be more effective if we imagined all kinds of scenarios. Not just happy ones, but sad and scary ones, too. That way, we are better prepared to deal with all that life may throw at us, the good and the bad. We would also need to respond emotionally to the negative pretend scenarios with real negative emotions. That way we know better what to avoid when making decisions, and we understand better when someone else is suffering. If it’s true, as many cognitive scientists believe, that imagining enhances fitness, it makes perfect sense that we would be ready and willing to imagine tragedies and horror.

All the people sniffling and sobbing their way through The Fault in Our Stars are not perverse or cruel or masochistic (at least, not necessarily). They are enhancing their empathy and decision-making and social skills. That’s probably worth $13.