The Science Behind Why Women Cry More Than Men
You know when you see a group of guys just bawling on the street, and you think, “Wow, men just cry over everything”? Probably not, because this (usually) doesn’t happen.
It’s not just a sexist stereotype that women tend to let the waterworks flow more freely than men. There are actually some damn good reasons this is the case, so we enlisted the help of psychology and psychiatry professors Dr. Louann Brizendine and Dr. Ad Vingerhoets to elaborate on the science of why women cry more than men -- and it’s not just “hormones, bro.” (But yeah, those too.)
Fertility has a lot to do with it, which is something humans need
According to Dr. Brizendine, expect the tears to have a much higher flow rate during the fertile years, between ages 13 and 50 (only 37 years!), thanks in part to the hormonal changes that come with the ability to conceive and carry a baby. “Basically, the fluctuating hormones of your menstrual cycle go up and down more aggressively” during this time, she says. “We call it ‘crying over dog food commercials’ in my clinic. Anything can trigger you into crying. You can cry at the drop of a hat.”
But the tears dry up after menopause: ”Those over 50 report crying less, and women in their fertile years cry much more.”
Milk and tears: more closely related than you think!
“There’s a physiological part, too,” Dr. Brizendine notes. “There are some anatomical differences between men and women with the size of the tear ducts. There’s a researcher named [William] Frey, [who] shows tear ducts are more active in a fertile age female than male.”
In fact, Frey found that not only is there a clear chemical difference between irritant-induced tears (as in, you got soap in your eye) and emotional tears (you just watched The Notebook), but emotional tears had high levels of prolactin, a hormone that helps produce tears, AND milk. As you might expect, women have more prolactin in them, to help with milk production and all, and researchers following Frey’s lead have linked prolactin levels to tear production.
Women don’t cry more; men cry LESS
Focusing on what makes women more prone to crying may actually be the wrong way to approach this question. What’s up with guys not crying? Dr. Vingerhoets invited us to reframe our patriarchal thinking, saying, “Most often you read about the role of female sex hormones. But I think aptly based on evidence, it’s more the male sex hormone, testosterone, that plays a factor -- it’s their inhibiting factor for crying.” So women don’t cry more; men actually cry less!
And Dr. Brizendine agrees that masculine processing plays a role here: “The hormones in the male brain go very quickly into anger. They can feel their biceps tense, and it bounces quickly into an angry reaction. Males have about 20 times more physical anger and aggression, and females burst into tears far more frequently. As they get older, their testosterone levels decrease, and men don’t feel like they have to hold up that same level of masculinity. They can get a little softer.” If you thought about every time that a man got angry as a scenario in which a less testosterone-fueled person might cry, you can begin to see that men are also emotionally volatile creatures.
This has potentially bad ramifications! Frey found that, in addition to prolactin, emotional tears contain adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), a stress indicator. He hypothesized that crying might help rid the body of stress-related toxins, which would help explain why you feel better after a good sob sesh. It also gives women a leg up on men in terms of stress relief.
“Big boys don’t cry” is a pretty real thing
Crying isn’t merely a physiological response to an event; it’s coded into stereotypes held by society at large, argues Dr. Brizendine. “How we’re raised to adhere to cultural gender expectations plays a role, and between 9 and 15, a boy’s testosterone goes up around 250 times.
“Think of it as learning to play an instrument; you practice consistently and get better and better at that thing, and at control -- little boys are always told to ‘suck it up,’ and little girls don’t hear that. Boys are trained to control tears. They’re trained to control their emotions. And if you practice that your entire childhood, by the time you become a young adult, you’ve gotten very good at it. Like an instrument, we learn to play the emotions acceding to our gender role.”
This view is certainly in line with the contemporary conception of gender as a social construct, and once again our doctors are in agreement, with Dr. Vingerhoets adding that parents aren’t always to blame: “It’s important to emphasize it’s not necessarily the influence of the parents or caregivers, but more the peers. When a 12-year-old boy starts crying for losing a game, he runs the risk of being bullied. There’s much more pressure to suppress the tears than there is for a girl.”
Tears don’t just express sadness
Those same gender expectations that cast men as tearless stoics often suggest that women are powerless, which may trigger the tears, says Dr. Vingerhoets. “There is some evidence that... negative situations like a burglary, computer crash, etc., make women react more with helplessness. It’s not sadness, which is what’s primarily associated with crying. Women tend to react more with helplessness to that kind of situation, where as to emotionally stronger situations, like a breakup or [death], there’s hardly differences between the sexes.”
In other words, the day-to-day experience of helplessness may lead women to cry more frequently, which reinforces the stereotype that they’re somehow more emotional, which in turn implies that they’re weaker, thus giving more power to masculine ideals... and the cycle continues. On the other hand, if you were to look only at breakups and deaths, you might find a more equitable distribution of tears, because those things pretty much universally suck.
There’s no accounting for taste!
All this talk about tear ducts, social constructs, and hormones leaves out an important detail: some people might just enjoy crying (or at least don’t mind it), and seek out tearjerking experiences accordingly. “This is often overlooked, but very important, and it’s just the frequency of exposure to emotional stimuli,” Dr. Vingerhoets points out. “For instance... what kind of literature, poems, films, television programs do women watch compared to men? The kind of music? That’s something we should take into account.”
The bottom line is that everyone is different, and it would be ridiculous to claim that every single woman cries more than every man. Maybe the answer is just to get more comfortable with waterworks, and we won’t have to worry about how much men OR women cry.
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Liz Newman is a freelance writer for Thrillist and will start crying right now if someone puts on that Sarah McLachlan-soundtracked dog shelter commercial. Follow on Twitter and Instagram at @lizn813.