Why don't we cry when we get physically hurt as adults?

I’ve Googled this and the answer is nobody knows for sure.

What’s your theory about why as adults, we generally don’t cry out of physical pain unless it’s really bad. Emotional crying I can understand. We try to suck it up.

The last time I cried (unstoppable tears) out of physical pain was about 15 years ago. I fell on my arm and I had a strawberry about 1"x 2", not huge and not deep (though the little bits of gravel in it didn’t help). I was on my way home and it hurt so badly, I started crying in the car. Once I got home and cleaned it, I was fine. I suspect it was the physical pain plus the shock of falling that did it (I tripped because my foot got caught on a low hanging chain I was crossing).

The purpose of infant crying is to get the attention of someone who can do something about the problem. As adults, we can mostly do something about it ourselves, and to the extent that we do need help, we can use words.

Babies are basically helpless. Even more so than many other species of newborn animal. They instinctively know to cry because vocalizing their distress is the only way they have to communicate. If they didn’t have some way of letting an adult know they needed help, mankind would have died out a long time ago. (Probably.) Crying in childhood is a retention of this infant instinct, and it serves the same purpose. Young children are in distress, they need an adult to help them, and so they revert to infant behavior. As they age, however, they become more accustomed to fixing their own problems and they learn to better tolerate pain and discomfort. I’m pretty sure things that felt like a Big Damned Deal as a child look kind of trivial or even foolish in hindsight. Worst of all, as you age the infant behavior of crying for assistance is no longer effective.

And that’s all it is. Maturity. We become self-reliant and more capable of tolerating pain, we have the perspective to realize that our situation isn’t so bad, and we understand that crying probably won’t accomplish anything.

Because I can now swear a lot when it happens, instead.

Serves the same purpose…

Crying also invokes a primitive response in adults. Parents who can sleep through all kinds of noise will be instantly alert if they hear a baby cry. I watched an excellent study on BBC (no point in a link) last night where this very thing was examined. It apparently has a lot to do with pitch and frequency and that is copied by the people who design alarms.

JB99 is right when he/she says “Worst of all, as you age the infant behavior of crying for assistance is no longer effective” I suppose that as a child gets older, they discover that crying loses its effectiveness; I imagine that if we could literally cry like a baby, it would still work.

Sometimes I do cry even now when sudden pain strikes uexpectedly. Last month I was getting a pedicure and the operator did something to my big toe that caused me to spontaneously burst into tears. Needless to say she was mortified and apologetic. OTOH a few years ago I fell and broke my ankle and didn’t cry at all as I lay in a parking lot flat on my back.

A life time of conditioning that crying is an inappropriate response also probably plays a very large role in the adult behavior.

Parents typically admonish their toddlers and older children for crying. I don’t know if there is any reliable data on if the adult behavior is innate or purely cultural but for men in western culture at least it is a sign of social weakness and not tolerated.

Reading the comments above, made me think of something. I suspect that because we’re at the top of the food chain, at least outside of the jungle, we’ve evolved to where our younger selves aren’t afraid to cry/yell. Many prey don’t cry out when they’re physically hurt, partially out of shock, but also because it would draw predators.

I saw a nature show where an adult lion had broken it’s leg or spine and was immobilized. It keep roaring in the hope (supposedly) that the rest of the pride would come to it. The point being, it was on the top of the food chain and didn’t fear disclosing it’s location or drawing the attention of other predators

One of my full grown dogs would yelp when you cut his toenails because a couple of times we cut to the quick. After that, just seeing the clipper or touching his toenail with it would start him yelping.

Anecdote time, with question: My little niece a generation or two removed is 16-18 months old. She’s an adorable squirming bundle who loves to be carried, and loves to run away, generally both at the same time. As such, she can easily squirm herself to the point where she’s bent a body part to an uncomfortable position – without an adult noticing.

Here’s the kicker: at that point she spends 10 to 20 seconds, red-faced, mouth wide open, tearing shut eyes – utterly noiseless. Only after a little while, will she begin to make the cry noise. I of course, think this is utterly adorable – she cries, but doesn’t cry, what an adorable little angel, like she doesn’t want to be annoying. Hrm … unless that’s a symptom of some obscure defect. Welp, off to Google “non-crying baby.”


Boy, that wasn’t instantly helpful. Very few such entries on Google. And mostly those say, “You lucky SOB’s, enjoy it.”

I’ve cried from pain. Many times.

I don’t throw a tantrum like a child.

But pain will bring tears to anyone’s eyes.

LOL, yeah! I’ve read that swearing reduces pain. It helps even if you just mouth it or think it! :smiley:

The point, I suspect, is that “cry=shed tears” from pain isn’t the same as “cry=shed tears + wailing” that babies do when they get hurt.

I’m not sure about that. What I’ve read is that it has to do with the fact that baby humans are basically helpless. Many animals are born looking like miniature versions of their parents and they are much more capable than baby humans. Things like baby deer or baby horses are expected to be up and moving quite soon after they are born. Baby humans are basically pink little lumps for the first few years.

Anyway, animals like puppies and kittens and birds will very definitely make noises to get attention. Anecdotally: I was once walking in a field and saw a rabbit start running. Almost immediately I heard a crying / squeaking kind of noise. I found a little pink baby rabbit in the grass. Rabbits are very definitely a prey species* and this baby rabbit wasn’t shy about signaling its distress.

*I recall this fact from a recent Disney documentary.

From an evolutionary standpoint, human babies are tiny and helpless because they can be, because humans are on top of the food chain. Many prey animals have evolved to either be born ready run (like deer and horses) or have multiple babies (like rabbits) and/or bred quickly. In between are animals like dogs and cats, who could be predator or prey.

As babies, animals cry out for food and protection. As they get older and no longer have their parents or group protection, they’ve evolved to be quiet so as not to show weakness. A rabbit will squeal when initially attacked or hurt, but generally doesn’t cry out in pain once it escapes harm.

The lil’wrekker did that. I think it had something to do with not having enough air it their lungs at the point of injury. She eventually got a lung full and had a loud, robust cry. Being the helicopter mom I was, I generally had her picked up and comforting her before the wail came. Your niece will grow out of it.

It does seem some people are equating tears as being crying while others are requiring vocalization.

I personally am in the tears camp, where I typically see adults trying to avoid them. It seems much disagreement is due to a limitation of overloaded verbs.

Yup. Had an “ouchie” at work a few years back, turned the air blue, and impressed my boss, a 20-year Navy vet. Fortunately, it looked/hurt worse than it actually was, so no OSHA recordable.

I suspect this is person specific. If I get hurt enough, I may yell and scream, but there are no tears.

And it is not because I am Mr. Tough Guy. I get teary eyed at the smallest emotional feeling.

For me, I suspect it’s mostly social conditioning, both in terms of being discouraged to cry/show weakness as an adult, and being discouraged to cry/show weakness as a man. Over the years I’ve taught myself to not cry (and, actually, to display fewer “weaknesses” emotionally) in order to maintain social approval.

I do wonder, though, if experience plays a role; if, as we age, we accumulate experiences with injury and pain and thereby learn that certain sensations that were very alarming (and, so, induced crying) when we were children are not, in fact, as alarming to us as adults. Your first scraped knee after falling off of a bicycle is horrifying; it’s very painful and bloody and can easily cause tears and other expressions of distress. The fifth or sixth one still hurts, but experience has taught that it will heal with no significant lasting harm, and so we can “process” the sensations better. It is not as traumatic an experience, and so we react in a less overtly “emotional” manner.

Plus, as IvoryTowerDenizen observed, as adults we’ve learned to swear, and that makes everything feel a little better. :slight_smile:

I know it’s not scientific, but answering 911 calls for 20+ years, I can assure you that there are plenty of people that still cry when physically hurt, not to mention emotionally hurt, scared, mad, etc. My personal belief is that it depends on the upbringing of the person.