Tears Turn Men Off But Fail to Make Them Care

by Lisa Kirchner

Last week’s gushingly reported study, “Researchers Show Women’s Tears Turn Men Off!” felt like another nail in the coffin of civilization. Offered up like a cautionary tale in headlines around the world–from The New York Times, “In Women’s Tears, a Chemical That Says, ‘Not Tonight, Dear'” to Business Week’s “Women’s Tears Dampen Men’s Sexual Arousal”–most reports barely scratched the surface of the study’s findings. Why did no one write, “Even Tears Fail to Move Men to Empathy”? This is, after all, what researchers found.

The study proves that tears communicate on a chemical level, but it’s what those tears don’t convey that surprised. According to researcher Noam Sobel, the standardized questionnaire  used only incidentally included a question about sexual arousal. Initially the scientists were looking at whether tears prompted empathy or sadness. He and his team found a “small but consistent reduction in sexual arousal,” and “floor-level change” on the empathic scale. Further study was needed.

“There was no context for sadness,” Sobel said, describing their first study, in which the men sniffed treated paper and then rated women’s tear-free faces for attractiveness. So in the next round they heightened the stakes by showing sad films to subjects. But the results were consistent. This led the team to publish their findings under the decidedly un-sexy title–“Weizmann Institute scientists discover a chemical signal in human tears.”


Ignoring the fact that Charles Darwin was a man and they’d just discovered that tears fail to move men to empathy, the scientists’ press release cites Darwin’s puzzlement over the purpose of emotional tears. Sobel suggests this study could prove a biological basis for these chemo-signals. “There is no reproductive advantage to sex during menstruation,” he said yesterday.

Frustrated, I posted my thoughts to my Facebook page. This prompted a flurry of response.

“Women might want to have sex, but a man is more likely to force a partner into it,” said one, which left me wondering what my friend thought this implied in terms of this study. Predators have a long history of failing to be deterred by tears, probably because sexual aggression is not an act of sex but of violence.

“Can we please get past the ‘Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus’ crap?… Empathy deficiency is an affliction that does not discriminate.” I liked this one, but it made me reflect on what my own statement above ignored. Testosterone and aggression are linked, just like testosterone and arousal.

“Behavior is complex,” Sobel agreed. “We’re a long way from application.”

Yet I wondered why didn’t the scientists check to see what effect tears had on women? This, Sobel said, is for the next study.

That the most astonishing finding of their research was quashed in favor of promoting negative stereotypes about emotional women is depressing, but the hype does mean the research will continue. Currently the team is gearing up for the next study, including the effect of men’s tears. Let’s hope that this time around they include male and female subjects.


Image Roy Lichtenstein’s Crying Girl.

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