The Science of Tearjerkers: Why We Love It When Movies Make Us Cry
Each year, millions of people pay their hard-earned money to watch movies that will make them cry.
Some plays and novels are famous for drawing out the waterworks (don’t get us started on Where the Red Fern Grows), but movies seem to have our tear ducts on speed dial. We spoke with experts to learn how weepies get to us, and why audiences find them so appealing.
SEPARATING FICTION FROM REALITY
In the 19th century, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge claimed that effective fiction relied on a “willing suspension of disbelief.” That is, in a theatrical scenario, the audience has to juggle two incongruent thoughts: I know these people on the stage are just pretending, but I’m pretending this is real anyway. Coleridge argued that this unspoken contract between artists and audiences makes acting seem believable—and it makes the audience emotionally vulnerable.
Dr. Jeffrey Zacks, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Washington University in St. Louis and author of the book Flicker: Your Brain on Movies, argues that Coleridge had it backward.
“You know it’s just a movie. But large parts of your brain don’t process that distinction,” he writes. “This makes sense because our brains evolved long before movies were invented, and our perceptual systems are honed to deal with the problems posed by the real world. Our brains didn’t evolve to watch movies: Movies evolved to take advantage of the brains we have.”
As Zacks tells Mental Floss, movies engage the algorithms already hardwired in our brains. When our nervous system confronts something in the cinema that looks and sounds real, our brain will respond to it appropriately. It’s the reason “jump scares” in horror movies work: You are experiencing a natural, uncontrolled biological response.
UNCONSCIOUSLY WE ROLL ALONG
These natural bodily responses happen all the time at the cinema—just look at the audience’s faces. According to Zacks, when a character frowns or smiles or laughs, the audience is likely to unconsciously imitate these responses. When a character cries, your own facial muscles might involuntarily copy their expression. The tension can place pressure on your eyes and trigger your tear ducts to well up.
This automatic mimicry response—what Zacks calls the “mirror rule”—is a relic of an old survival mechanism. Millennia ago, if you saw a group of cavemen running, it probably wasn’t a good idea to investigate what they were running from. “Rather, upon seeing others run, running should come first—automatically and immediately—and analyzing the situation should come later,” Dr. Tanya Chartrand and colleagues explain in a chapter of The New Unconscious [PDF].
But because the face is the most noticeable part of the body, it’s the most susceptible to this automatic mimicry response. According to Chartrand, a professor of marketing, psychology, and neuroscience at Duke University, it’s part of everyday life. If you smile at an infant, the baby might smile back; yawn around a friend, and your friend might yawn too; sit at an interview and scratch your forehead, and your interviewer might begin scratching their forehead.
The phenomenon has even been observed to occur at levels that are impossible to detect with the naked eye. In one study published in Psychological Science, researchers showed test subjects pictures of neutral faces. Just before the neutral face appeared, a happy or sad face flashed quickly on the screen. The test subjects failed to consciously detect the happy and sad faces—but their brains did, as shown by the involuntary twitching of their facial muscles.
Good filmmakers have been hijacking this evolutionary quirk for more than a century. “Our imitation of the emotions we see expressed brings vividness and affective tone into our grasping of the [movie’s] action,” psychologist Hugo Münsterberg noted in his 1916 book The Photoplay, which is widely considered the first work of film criticism. “We sympathize with the sufferer and that means that the pain which he expresses becomes our own pain.”
Just because your face might mimic an expression you see on a screen doesn’t automatically mean you’ll feel that specific emotion. It does, however, boost your chances. “Functional MRI studies show that circuits in the emotional brain can be activated by watching emotional expressions on the screen,” Zacks writes.
Movies have a habit of eliciting exaggerated emotional responses. The reason why can be best explained with herring gulls.
In 1947, biologist Nikolaas Tinbergen was observing the eating behaviors of nesting herring gull chicks, which beg for food by pecking at the parent’s beak. Tinbergen performed an experiment, feeding the birds with models that looked less and less like their parents. Surprisingly, Tinbergen discovered that, the more unrealistic the model looked, the more the chicks exaggerated their pecking behavior.
Tinbergen called this response a supernormal stimulus. Put simply, exaggerated patterns can elicit exaggerated responses.
The cinema is designed to assault your senses. Nothing in your evolutionary circuitry has prepared you for an encounter with 30-foot tall faces. The dialogue, the color, the framing, the angles, and the editing can help exaggerate these stimuli even further, amplifying our unconscious responses.
“The combination of stimulus features that a movie presents can often be much more consistent, much stronger, and much more powerful than what we typically experience in the normal range,” Zacks tells Mental Floss.
With the conditions of film priming your body to react emotionally, all you need is for the actors to deliver on that special moment.
THE SECRETS TO A “GOOD CRY”
If you ask somebody why they choose to watch a sad movie, they’ll often say that it improves their mood. This idea, which is known as the tragedy paradox, has baffled thinkers from Aristotle to David Hume: Why would somebody seek out a negative experience to feel better?
Evidence suggests a “good cry” might be therapeutic. A 2008 review published in Current Directions in Psychological Science cited a study that evaluated 3000 crying episodes and found that 60 to 70 percent of people reported feeling better after shedding tears [PDF]. (One third reported no boost in mood. One in 10 claimed to feel worse.)
“When you ask people if they feel better after crying, in general, most people will say they do,” Dr. Lauren Bylsma, a crying expert and assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, tells Mental Floss. “But if you ask them about a specific crying episode, especially the closer you get to that episode, most people say they didn’t feel better after crying.” The more distance we put between ourselves and a specific crying episode, the more likely we might lie to ourselves about how beneficial it really was. (A 2015 study in Motivation and Emotion found that respondents needed 90 minutes for their mood to bounce back after watching tear-jerking film clips.)
Crying is most therapeutic when the crier is surrounded by a strong network of supportive people, Bylsma says. It also tends to be more beneficial when it forces people to reflect on the causes of their emotions. A 2012 study backs that up: Researchers at Ohio State University had 361 college students watch an abridged version of the film Atonement and discovered that the people who found the movie saddest also came away from the experience feeling the happiest, because the movie compelled them to reflect on their own relationships.
Interestingly, the study showed that downward comparisons—selfish thoughts such as “at least my life isn’t that bad”—did not increase a viewer’s pleasure. "Tragedies don't boost life happiness by making viewers think more about themselves,” the study’s lead author, Dr. Silvia Knoblock-Westerwick, told Ohio State News. “They appeal to people because they help them to appreciate their own relationships more."
So for those keeping a checklist, here’s the secret to crying at the movies (and feeling good about it): Pick a heart-tugging film with lots of close-ups. Watch it in a controlled room and on a big screen that exaggerates the stimuli, and invite a handful of supportive friends. Lastly, find characters you can relate to. And bring the popcorn.