If you get teary-eyed far too often when you watch a movie, you’re not alone. In fact, movies are one of the most common reasons we cry (1)!
While everyone might shed a few tears when they feel sad, elated, or stimulated by what happens in their lives, not everyone may feel that way when it comes to the lives of fictional characters.
So why are some people more likely to cry while watching a movie than others?
4 Reasons You Are More Likely to Cry During a Movie
1. You tend to get caught up in the story
If you are a voracious reader or film buff – or simply love a good story – you may find it easier to immerse yourself in the story you’re following. As a result, you may end up forming stronger bonds with fictional characters than others, and become more vulnerable to forming involuntary emotional responses to the journeys of characters you see in theaters.
Research confirms that people can form parasocial – or one-directional – friendships with fictional characters in any given story, and thus become emotionally invested in them, even if these characters cannot reciprocate this bond (4).
“The interesting thing is that our brains aren’t really built to distinguish between whether a relationship is real or fictional,” reports Jennifer Barnes, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Oklahoma, in Time (5). “So these friendships can convey a lot of real-world benefits.”
Indeed, when you form an emotional attachment to the characters in a film or book, you may experience higher self-esteem, less loneliness, and greater feelings of belonging as you follow their stories (5). However, you may also find yourself shedding a few tears as you vicariously share in the miseries and joys of your fictional friends.
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2. You are highly empathetic
You might cry more than others when watching a movie if you just happen to be highly sensitive to the emotions of others.
The precise mechanisms behind empathy are not clear, but it is possible that highly empathetic people produce more oxytocin – a hormone associated with feelings of empathy (6) – than less empathetic people when they encounter others. But whatever the explanation, one thing is clear: People who are higher in empathy may naturally find themselves becoming more emotionally invested in a film’s characters than others.
It is worth noting here that stories, whether in books or films, tend to make us more empathetic (7). After all, fiction often forces us to step into the shoes of others and immerses us in a different reality. As a result, people who frequently engage in immersive stories may become more open-minded and understanding when dealing with others (7) – and, in turn, become more vulnerable to becoming immersed in future stories.
3. You have feelings that need to get out
It may sound strange, but people love to be sad (10). From Greek tragedies and recent films, tragedies have remained a staple in drama and entertainment for all of human history (10).
So you may be more open to crying in theaters, simply because you feel you should be – and because it is, in a sense, enjoyable. After all, crying can lower stress, facilitate catharsis (i.e. a purging of negative emotions) (8), and lift your mood afterward (9). Tragedies can also encourage people to reflect on their lives, examine their relationships, foster spontaneous thoughts about important matters, and raise life happiness in the long run (8).
Perhaps people find ourselves being more vulnerable to tears because we’re in need of a good cry every once in a while.
4. You have Stendhal syndrome
Your tears might have something to do with Stendhal syndrome – a temporary psychosomatic illness associated with viewing lots of art in a single space – if you also feel suddenly nauseous, confused, or anxious while in theaters (10). Stendhal syndrome can seem like a more extreme version of the wonder you feel when you’re looking at impressive works of art – and it may manifest in symptoms like rapid heart rate, intense dizziness, or even panic attacks (10). If you find yourself temporarily overwhelmed by stunning views of nature or a moving performance, this might be the explanation.
Conclusion: High Empathy Could mean Cry-ability
Whether you’re more likely to cry in the theaters or not, one thing’s for sure: Crying while watching a film can be good for you (10). Sure, crying could be a symptom of the rare Stendhal syndrome. But it may also be a sign that you just love a good story – and are highly attuned to the feelings of others.
- Frey, W. H, et al. (1983). Crying behavior in the human adult. Integrative Psychiatry, 1(3), 94-98.
- Burton, N. (2012). Why Crying Is Good for You. [online] Psychology Today. Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/hide-and-seek/201208/why-crying-is-good-you [Accessed 14 Nov. 2017].
- YouTube: ASAPScience. (2017). Why Do We Cry?. [online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QGdHJSIr1Z0 [Accessed 14 Nov. 2017].
- Gleich, U. (1997). Parasocial Interaction with People on the Screen. New Horizons in Media Psychology, pp.35-55.
- MacMillan, A. (2017). Why It’s Healthy to Cry Over TV Shows. [online] Time. Available at: http://time.com/4681115/crying-television-this-is-us/ [Accessed 14 Nov. 2017].
- Barraza, J. and Zak, P. (2009). Empathy toward Strangers Triggers Oxytocin Release and Subsequent Generosity. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1167(1), pp.182-189.
- Bal, P. and Veltkamp, M. (2013). How Does Fiction Reading Influence Empathy? An Experimental Investigation on the Role of Emotional Transportation. PLoS ONE, 8(1), p.e55341.
- Bylsma, L., Vingerhoets, A. and Rottenberg, J. (2008). When is Crying Cathartic? An International Study. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 27(10), pp.1165-1187.
- Gračanin, A., Bylsma, L. M., & Vingerhoets, A. J. J. M. (2014). Is crying a self-soothing behavior? Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 502. http://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00502
- Knobloch-Westerwick, S., Gong, Y., Hagner, H. and Kerbeykian, L. (2012). Tragedy Viewers Count Their Blessings. Communication Research, 40(6), pp.747-766.
- Srivastava, S., Tamir, M., McGonigal, K. M., John, O. P., & Gross, J. J. (2009). The Social Costs of Emotional Suppression: A Prospective Study of the Transition to College. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96(4), 883–897. http://doi.org/10.1037/a0014755
- Griffiths, M. (2017). Having an Art Attack. [online] Psychology Today. Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/in-excess/201403/having-art-attack [Accessed 14 Nov. 2017].
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