If you’re a baby, bursting into a puddle of tears (in public or in private) helps you get what you want. But if you’re a grown-up, crying at work will only get you left behind, a new study suggests.
In a series of three experiments, published in the British Journal of Social Psychology, researchers asked about 1,000 people their impression of a person in a photograph. In one photo, the person had visible tears on their cheek—making it obvious that they were crying—or showed no tears, because they’d been digitally removed. The presence of a tear made all the difference; people perceived the tearful person as sadder, warmer—but also less competent—than the very same person when the tears had been edited out. People looking at the photos said they were more likely to approach a tearful person to offer help than one without tears.
But in another experiment in the study, people were shown the photographs and asked a different question: “If you would arrive at work, and your manager asks you to finish an important project that afternoon, would you like to do that with this person?”
People in the study said they wanted to approach the woman in the photo to see if they could help, but weren’t too eager to work with her on a big project. “It seems that people who cry are seen as less competent persons in general,” says Niels van de Ven, associate professor in marketing at Tilburg University in the Netherlands and one of the authors of the study. “We did not give reasons about why people were crying, but still, it reflects badly on their perceived competence.”
Why adults cry has been a mystery to scientists for centuries, as TIME recently reported. One prominent theory is that crying signals to others an inability to cope with something happening at that moment, and tears trigger bystanders’ desire to help. Several studies, including this one, have shown that tears do compel people to approach someone who’s crying. But the new work shows that the effects of those tears are not all positive and may depend on context. “Work is definitely a place where crying seems to be not really appreciated,” van de Ven says. “Work is a setting where typically everything is about competence.”
Thankfully, though, the office is not the most popular spot to cry. In one comprehensive survey, 74% of people said the last place they cried was at home, while only 6% reported crying at work or school. Wondering how your crying habits measure up to the those of your colleagues? Take our quiz to find out what kind of crier you are.
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