How weeping influences the perception of facial expressions: The signal value of tears

A. Gracanin*, E. Krahmer, M. Balsters, D. Kuester, A.J.J.M. Vingerhoets

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

9 Citations (Scopus)


Emotional tears have been proposed to serve as a signal of distress, appeasement, and helplessness, which promotes prosocial responses in observers. They may also facilitate the perception of sadness. A still unanswered question is what information tears convey about emotional states when they are combined with different muscular facial expressions. The current study evaluated three hypotheses: Tears facilitate inferences about (a) emotion intensity in general (b) sadness in particular, or (c) helplessness-related appraisal and behavioral intentions. In the first experiment, participants viewed pictures of (non)tearful real and artificial faces displaying anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, surprise, and neutral state. They had to report which of the seven expressions they recognized, and to rate its intensity, sincerity, and felt empathy. Tears appeared to facilitate the perception of sadness, but also of anger and fear, while they decreased the perception of disgust and surprise. The ratings of the intensity, the perceived sincerity, and the experienced empathy followed a similar pattern. In the second experiment, participants had to indicate if briefly (50 ms) presented (non)tearful faces showed a particular expression, and we measured their accuracy and reaction times. The results of the first experiment were not corroborated. Overall, the findings lend most support to the appraisal/behavioral intentions hypothesis and less support for the intensity and the sadness enhancement hypotheses.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)83-105
JournalJournal of Nonverbal Behavior
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2021


  • Emotional intensity
  • Emotional tears
  • Empathy
  • Facial expressions
  • Signaling functions
  • Sincerity


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