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How Visible Tears Affect Observers’ Judgements and Behavioral Intentions: Sincerity, Remorse, and Punishment

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……tears are shed in the greatest quantity by people with the best characters.

Petitus, 1662.


Crying is a uniquely human behavior, the functions of which are at present not completely understood. We hypothesized that tears promote the perception of morally relevant traits and states such as sincerity, honesty, and remorse, which facilitate social bonding and we, therefore, predicted that tears would reduce the punishments proposed for transgressors. Participants were exposed to photographs of tearful people and the same pictures with the tears digitally removed, together with brief descriptions of everyday transgressions (Study 1, N = 71) and crimes (Study 2; N = 359). The dependent variables were the judgment of the model’s emotionality (Study 1), sincerity (situational in Study 1 and trait in Study 2), and kindness, remorse, and proposed punishment (Study 2 only). As expected, models with visible tears were rated as more emotional and reliable and were also judged as kinder and more remorseful than tearless transgressors. However, the more positive perception of tearful transgressors only translated into more lenient punishment in the case of drunk driving. In conclusion, although tears make transgressors appear more sincere, reliable, kind and remorseful, they do not necessarily affect proposed punishments for the transgression.

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  1. The Spanish and English vignettes: (1) Está informando a su padre de que tiene que repetir el examen para obtener el carnet de conducir: ¡un fallo informático! Estaba aprobada y ahora tengo que repetirlo, ¿te lo puedes creer? [She is informing her father that she must retake her driving licence exam. She tells her father: “A computer glitch! I was already approved and now I must repeat it! Can you believe it?”]. (2) Se encuentra en la graduación de su hijo, al cual le están entregando un premio por su buen expediente. Dice: jamás estuve más orgulloso de algo. [A father is attending his son’s graduation ceremony, where his son receives an award for the best academic achievement. The father says: “I am more proud than ever before!”] (3) Acaba de romper la relación con su novio y dice: Es lo más difícil que he hecho nunca. [‘She has just broken up with her boyfriend and says: “It is the hardest thing I ever had to do.”] (4) Casi una brigada complete del cuerpo de bomberos forestales murió aquel año. Él fue el único superviviente y se le juzga por no socorrer a sus compañeros. Dijo ante el juez: No huí de allí. Hice todo lo que pude por salvarlos. [Almost a whole brigade of forestry fire-fighters died this year. He is the only survivor and has pleaded no guilty to not helping his colleagues, “I didn’t run away. I did everything I could to save them,” he testified to the judge.].


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The authors want to express their gratitude to the photographer Marco Anelli for permitting the use of his pictures in these studies. The photographs were part of his series entitled ‘Portraits in the Presence of Marina Abramovic’ (see


This research did not receive any specific grant from funding agencies in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit sectors. The authors declare no conflict of interest in this article.

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Picó, A., Gračanin, A., Gadea, M. et al. How Visible Tears Affect Observers’ Judgements and Behavioral Intentions: Sincerity, Remorse, and Punishment. J Nonverbal Behav 44, 215–232 (2020).

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