Tears are a better signal of distress in adults, but crying infants still get more comforting responsesPublished 9 January, 2012
Corresponding author: Debra Zeifman
Poughkeepsie, NY. Anyone who has cared for an infant knows the sound of crying. Parents can often tell whether a baby needs help just from the sound of crying. Over time, children get better at controlling as well as exaggerating their crying, in order to influence others.
Crying has several parts to it—the sad face, the sobbing sound, and tears. It turns out that tears are the part that is hardest to control or fake. Babies usually don’t shed tears when they cry until after two months of age. Grown-ups can do a much better job controlling their sad face and sobbing noise, so tears may be the best indicator of an adult’s distress, but far less important for judging babies.
Researchers Debra M. Zeifman of Vassar College and Sarah A. Brown of Haverford College designed a study to examine the importance of tears for grown-ups and youngsters. The researchers predicted that people would come to the aid of a crying baby, whether or not the infant is shedding tears. But for adults, tears would make a big difference.
When looking at photos of adults, young children, and babies crying, people said that pictures of adults with tearful faces looked sad and that the same crying faces without tears did not seem so sad. In photos of babies, tears hardly had any effect on reactions to crying, and children fell somewhere in between. Although crying was not particularly irritating in general, the crying of adults was less irritating than the crying of children or infants. Crying faces without tears were more irritating than crying faces with tears.
The results may shed light on the functional significance of crying at different stages of human development. “As vocal signaling of distress becomes voluntarily suppressed, visual cues of distress, such as emotional tearing, may gain significance because they are reliable signs of distress and are not easily inhibited,” Zeifman and Brown wrote.
“A common explanation for the paradoxical effects of infant crying on listeners is that the aversive quality of infant crying underlies its effectiveness at recruiting actions aimed at stopping it,” Zeifman and Brown explained in their study. “In this model, irritation typically leads to intervention.”
Although the crying of an infant may provoke the most irritation, participants in the study reported being much more likely to comfort a crying infant than a crying adult. When shown a picture of a crying infant, 83 percent of the participants said they would attempt to comfort the infant in the photograph. Only 25 percent said they would attempt to comfort an adult.
“Age-related changes in the signal value of tears,” is published in Evolutionary Psychology and is available at: http://www.epjournal.net/filestore/EP09313324.pdf