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Emotion, Race, ethnicity and culture

Tears of joy flow differently across cultures and demographics

Study of Olympic medal winners suggest that the home countries, cultures, and personal demographics of athletes influence their likeliness to shed tears upon victory.

06 June 2023

By Emma Young

We’re all familiar with the concept, if not the experience, of crying tears of joy. When positive emotions become unmanageable and overwhelming, we might find ourselves having to wipe a few away. Despite how common they are, tears of joy have received very little academic attention, partly because it’s nearly impossible to trigger them in the lab setting.

However, Alex Krumer and Andrew Muse of Molde University College realised that a wealth of real world data already exists. For their new paper in Emotion, they studied videos of Olympic gold medal-winners taken at the moments when tears of joy were most likely: when the athletes realised they had won gold, and during their medal ceremonies. Their study reveals intriguing insights into who is most likely to cry in this way — and raises all kinds of questions as to reasons why. 

The team analysed videos of the winners of a total of 446 gold medals for individual events, awarded at the 2012 and 2016 Olympic Games. These athletes came from 64 different countries. Krumer and Muse looked for tears on the athletes’ faces (not just sniffling or welling up), then considered this alongside the athletes' demographics, and the cultures of their home countries.

Overall, female gold medal-winners were more likely to cry tears of joy than men; the probability of a woman crying during at least one of those two occasions was 17.5 percentage points higher than that of a man crying. This tallies with earlier findings that, in general, women cry more than men. 

The pair’s analysis also showed that athletes who had won gold in their home country had a 13.8% higher average probability of crying, compared with other winners. The study didn’t address why, but if home athletes felt under more pressure to triumph, then succeeding in doing so might have triggered stronger emotions. 

Age emerged as a factor, too: older champions were more likely to cry than their younger counterparts. In fact, for around every 5 additional years of age above the mean, athletes were 4.4 percentage points more likely to shed tears. There are a few potential explanations for this. For example, if older athletes find it harder to triumph, perhaps a gold medal win stimulates stronger emotional reactions, which are in turn more likely to lead to tears of joy.  

The pair also found some nation-based and regional differences. One of the most notable regional differences was that athletes from South America cried the most. Also, gold medal-winners from countries in which many religions are followed were less likely to cry than those from countries in which a single religion dominates. Again, exactly why these patterns exist isn’t clear, but Krumer and Muse point to previous work finding lower levels of patriotism in countries with greater religious and linguistic diversity. This might mean that athletes from such countries feel less positive emotion in response to winning gold for their country, and so are less likely to cry with joy. 

The relative presence of women in an athlete’s home country’s labour force — an indicator of levels of gender equality — also had an impact on a champion’s probability of crying. Both male and female athletes from countries in which women are employed at a higher rate were more likely to cry than those from more male-dominated countries. This might be because in more equal societies, people feel freer to express themselves, including their emotions, the authors suggest. Men from countries in which gender roles are more blurred may also feel that it’s more acceptable to show their emotions, and to allow themselves to cry.  

There are some limitations to the study. Most obviously, the participants were all highly experienced, well-trained professional athletes who had just achieved a career peak. Tears of joy shed by everyday people in other contexts — when achieving brilliant exam grades, or at the birth of a child, for example — may not follow exactly the same patterns. 

There is also a need for other studies on tears of joy in naturalistic settings. One potential source of data could be versions of the same TV show that elicits strong emotions produced in different countries — perhaps a Jerry Springer-type series, or the likes of ‘I’m a Celebrity… Get me out of here!’

Though studying behaviour and emotions in sport has some limitations in terms of general applicability, it also offers some clear benefits, the researchers argue. In sport, the rules are fixed and known, and the outcomes and identities of the participants are all fully observable. This makes sport “a ‘good laboratory’ to study human behaviour in a real competitive environment,” they write.  

In this case, studying athletes has revealed insights into a phenomenon that has been tricky to investigate. At the very least, it provides clues to why some champions are more likely to respond to victory with tears than others. 

Read the paper in full