In 1985, John Restivo was falsely convicted of murder, and spent nearly two decades in prison before finally being exonerated by DNA evidence. After his release, Restivo and his co-defendants sued the county that had prosecuted them. At his trial for damages, Restivo’s girlfriend testified that she hears him cry every time he takes a shower.
Restivo’s reasons for crying in the shower are somewhat extreme, but the impulse is commonplace — both in actual people, as evidenced by numerous online testimonials and fan pages, as well as in fictional characters. On Empire, Andre cries in the shower after learning of his dad’s ALS diagnosis. Angelina Jolie told a reporter she had a teary, “emotional breakdown in the shower” while working on a film about the Bosnian War. In The Big Chill, Sarah Cooper breaks down in the tub as she mourns the death of a friend. Tobias Fünke from Arrested Development cries in the shower so often that his habit has inspired multiple animated GIFs:
Fahrenheit 451 author Ray Bradbury even wrote a poetic ode to the shower-cry called — a bit unimaginatively — “Why didn’t someone tell me about crying in the shower?” (“You wear your sadness, properly assuaged / Your head and face massaged by storms of spring / Or, if you think it, autumn rain.”)
So what is it about shower-crying? Why does it appeal to such a wide range of people, from Oscar-winning actresses to celebrated sci-fi authors? Is there something about being naked, alone, and engulfed in running water that brings on tears? Unfortunately, we don’t have much hard data on the correlation between washing and crying. Studying this “might be a difficult thing to do in the lab,” Oriana Aragon, a psychologist at Yale, pointed out. But psychologists do have some interesting ideas about the shower-cry.
At first glance, the practice might seem to defeat the very purpose of crying. After all, researchers have long thought that adult tears, just like babies’ cries, function in part as a plea for help. Randolph Cornelius, a psychology professor and co-editor of Adult Crying, argues that humans developed the ability to cry in order to convey social messages to other members of our species. In his lab at Vassar College, Cornelius shows his subjects photos and videos of people with or without tears streaming down their faces. Unsurprisingly, people are more likely to describe the criers as vulnerable and in need of help. ”I believe that emotional crying, which only humans appear to do, evolved to signal our vulnerability and to solicit help,” Cornelius wrote in an email.
But in the real world, people often prefer to cry alone. The bathroom confers a measure of privacy, and the sound of falling water further masks the sounds of crying: As Bradbury put it, a shower-crier may rest assured “that no one hears. Let fall your tears which, with the rain that falls / Appall nobody save yourself.” “People are most likely to cry when they are at home and by themselves,” said Lauren Bylsma, a psychologist at the University of Pittsburgh. When Bylsma analyzed a cross-cultural data set on the most recent crying episodes of over 5,000 men and women, she found that the home was the most common place to cry: 62 percent of the crying episodes in her sample took place in the home. And most people saved their tears until they could be alone: 35 percent of the crying episodes had no witnesses, while 31 percent had just one. Whether for cultural or evolutionary reasons, it’s often advantageous not to flaunt our vulnerability: “In many situations, such a signal may invite attack — in offices and on the savannah — and so we sometimes protect ourselves by hiding our tears,” said Cornelius.
Plus, setting aside social questions, there’s some evidence that both crying and showering are comforting activities in their own right — and that combining them can maximize that comfort. Ad Vingerhoets, a psychology professor at Tilburg University and author of Why Only Humans Weep, told me about a not-yet-published study in which he and Waldie Hanser, another Dutch psychologist, investigated the behaviors distressed people engage in to console themselves. Apart from listening to music, two of the most common self-comforting activities are crying and taking steps to feel warmer, like by putting on extra clothes — or taking a shower.
If shower-crying never appealed to you, or only does sometimes, there could be an explanation for that, too. Certain types of personalities may simply be more drawn to the shower when they feel the urge to cry. Adults with “dismissive” attachment styles, who avoid or lack security in close relationships, are more likely to stop themselves from breaking down in front of others, according to Vingerhoets.
The reason behind the crying episode matters, too: People who are crying out of a sense of guilt or regret may be more likely to find themselves in the shower in the first place. Chen-Bo Zhong, a researcher at the University of Toronto, has found that people are more interested in cleaning materials like hand wipes, mouthwash, and soap when they’re primed to think about past misdeeds or forced to send a deceitful email. (He named this tendency the “Macbeth effect,” after Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth — who tries to wash nonexistent bloodstains off her hands after goading her husband into killing the King of Scotland.) So all things being equal, those who are stressed over having done something they feel queasy about may be more likely to hit the showers than those crying after seeing a sad movie, for example.
While biology and evolution clearly play a role in the prevalence of shower-crying, all those fictional characters sobbing in the shower can’t be ignored either. “There is probably a bit of modeling the media going on,” Cornelius said — we shower-cry because we’ve seen other people do it. After all, what Arrested Development fan doesn’t have that image of Tobias burned forever into their brains?