Are we really more likely to cry when watching movies on planes? New study de-mystifies the urban legend

Posted April 3rd, 2018 by

The Oscars have been awarded and spring travel is in full swing, which got us thinking about the urban legend that you’re more likely to cry watching a movie on a plane than on the ground. Is it just a myth or is there more to it?

While celebrities, polls and pop culture have covered the phenomenon — also jokingly known as altitude-adjusted lachrymosity syndrome (AALS) — no true scientific research has studied it. Until now.

An idea takes flight: The study set up

Paul Wicks, VP of Innovation at PatientsLikeMe, studies emotional lability, or uncontrolled crying and laughing, in people with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or motor neuron disease). But he’s also a frequent flier, and on a trip back from an ALS conference found himself a little weepy while watching Selma on a flight.

“Although I was studying this uncontrollable emotional expression in people with a medical condition, I thought maybe lots of healthy people might have uncontrollable, unexplained outburst of crying in certain settings, too.”

Enter the first scientific study on AALS. Wicks surveyed 1,084 people living in the United States who had watched a movie on a plane in the last 12 months. Participants answered questions about the films they viewed, whether they had consumed alcohol, if they’d watched any movies on the ground since their flight, and more.

The verdict: Frequent fliers aren’t always frequent criers

The study debunked the myth that we cry more on planes (25% of respondents reported crying while watching movies in the air vs. 22 % on the ground, a non-significant difference). Wicks was surprised by the results, but even more interested in some of the other unexpected takeaways…

Top takeaways

The most likely contributors to crying aren’t altitude or alcohol – it’s more about specific movies people are likely to choose on planes. Gender is also a factor, but Wicks says that could be because men are less likely to self-report crying at films. Here’s what else can increase your chances of tearing up:

A lot of it has to do with movie genre, too…

And if you pick these ones in particular, we hope you have tissues handy.

But in the end, it can be really personal, says Wicks:

“One mother reported that they took their daughters to see Wonder Woman and she cried not at the plot but to see the representation of a strong female protagonist for her daughters, and the feeling that her children were growing up with a better social culture than she did.”

Check out the full study results here, where you can also watch a video recap with Paul Wicks.

What’s your experience with crying on planes? What do you make of these study results? Share in the comments below.

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