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Farewell Ad Vingerhoets: The binding power of the tear

Published: 05th November 2019 Last updated: 05th November 2019

Crying, weeping, sobbing, howling. Ad Vingerhoets, Professor of Emotions and Well-being at the Tilburg School of Social and Behavioral Sciences, will give his farewell speech on ‘The binding power of the tear’ on November 8. His research theme ‘crying’ made Vingerhoets famous in the scientific world. He is one of the world's most eye-catching researchers in this field. The unique human phenomenon of crying - animals do not cry emotionally – was/is the stepchild of science, according to Ad.

Ad Vingerhoets (Hilvarenbeek, 1953) investigated the function of crying (by babies, by adults), why someone cries more than somebody else, what effect crying has on the person him/herself and how it influences others. Yes, crying connects people and is important in our social functioning. Vingerhoets conducted research into what we are crying about (misfortune, sadness, pain but also happiness, music, humor) and when (especially between 6 p.m. and 11 p.m.), and whether crying is a universal phenomenon (it is partly culturally-bound)? He also wondered whether crying says anything about a person’s level of empathy and moral development.

The relieving tear

What exactly are the effects on the weeper him/herself and his/her environment? It is generally assumed that tears are relieving, but Vingerhoets discovered that this assumption needs a little more nuance. His own research showed that this only applied to one third to half of the respondents. The rest did not feel better or even worse, for instance after watching an emotional movie. A better question would be: for whom and under what circumstances do tears have a positive effect? For example, crying rarely works positively for people who are depressed or anxious. Even in uncontrollable situations (in case of a death) the chance that we feel better after crying is smaller than in case of a controllable situation (e.g. a conflict). Furthermore, the reaction of others is quite important. If there is understanding or consolation, the weeper usually feels better afterwards. But if the other gets angry or the weeper is laughed at, then shame may be the result and the relief minimal.

Negative and positive tears

Negative tears are mainly shed in the company of intimates (such as the partner, mother, best friends, God) while positive tears are shed mainly in the company of larger groups, including strangers (in a movie theater, when laughing). This indicates that negative tears are mainly used to reinforce a request for help, while positive tears seem more intended to show others that we are touched by socially important issues such as someone’s contributions/performances, unconditional love and companionship, altruism, self-sacrifice, and that we are good people. Incidentally, crocodile tears, fake tears, do not exist, according to Ad. There is always a deeper emotion behind it, a memory, an association. And the onion is another story (chemical reaction).

Fundamental research

In short, Vingerhoets' fundamental crying research has yielded a number of new insights into the nature of mankind, through which we understand ourselves better. It has also refuted some widespread ideas and prejudice about crying. Finally, Vingerhoets calls on policymakers to ensure that sufficient resources remain available for this type of fundamental research.

NOTE FOR EDITORS

Professor Ad Vingerhoets will give his farewell speech ‘The binding power of the tear’ on Friday November 8, 2019 in the auditorium of Tilburg University (4.15 p.m.). Interview requests and the text of his speech can be requested via persvoorlichters@tilburguniversity.edu or by telephone via 013-4664000. Telephone Ad Vingerhoets: +31 13 4662087. Website: http://www.advingerhoets.com/. The enclosed photo of Ad may be used free of charge.