Barack Obama openly crying could help him -- here's why people find a leader's tears moving

The internet is abuzz with the news that President Barack Obama shed some tears during an emotional gun-control speech on Tuesday.

The president got choked up while talking about the 2012 attack at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut, an example of the gun violence that has plagued the US in the last few years.

This was hardly the first time a leader has teared up — a number of politicians, from Russian president Vladimir Putin to Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, have cried in public.

Does crying make a leader look weak, or does it help them influence others?

Many experts say as long as that emotion is sincere, it can increase people’s support and admiration.

As behavioural expert Judi James told the BBC in 2010, crying can boost support for a leader by making people warm to them.

“Crying has a profound effect on someone,” she told the BBC. “It’s something that babies do to get nurture and attention and love, and we are almost hard-wired to have an empathetic response and a sympathetic response and that will still occur.”

Meanwhile, Deborah Milstein wrote in The Harvard Business Review that “crying in a work context is sometimes appropriate, acceptable, and even, as Obama demonstrates, admirable.” (Milstein was writing after Obama cried when he won the 2012 reelection.)

“Tears — and any other authentic display of emotion — show that we’re deeply moved, which in turn moves our audience,” Milstein wrote.

“If it’s genuine, a leader showing emotion can have a powerful motivational impact,” Travis Bradberry, author of Emotional Intelligence 2.0, told Business Insider. “Shedding tears can show people that a leader is human and this has a powerful impact, as long as the show of emotion is appropriate for the situation.”

However, as James told the BBC, if we suspect that the crier is openly breaking down because they want something from us, we can become sceptical of their tears.

There’s a long history of leaders getting emotional in public. Yet psychologists and political experts say that the public response to these leaders — especially male leaders — has evolved over the last few decades.

For example, former US presidential candidate Ed Muskie cried during the New Hampshire primary in 1972 while defending his wife from a newspaper attack, and the incident may have decreased his support among voters because it portrayed him as weak.

“I think things have changed dramatically” since 1972, Severin Beliveau told The Boston Globe. Beliveau is an attorney and former politician, who was standing beside Muskie as he cried in public.

“I think we have matured as a society over the past 30 years over these issues,” Beliveau said.

Writing in Psychology Today, psychologist Romeo Vitelli says: “Rigid gender roles have loosened slightly in recent decades with ‘sensitive’ males becoming more widely accepted, even for politicians. … John Boehner has cried on camera often enough to earn him the nickname of ‘Weeper of the House’ with little political fallout.”

Reactions to Obama’s tears have been mixed. The TODAY show highlighted tweets from people across the country, one of which read, “Seeing President Obama cry makes me proud to have a leader so moved by the stories and lives of Americans.”

Another tweet questioned Obama’s authenticity: “and the Oscar for the ‘best fake crying to make an emotional point to push his anti-gun agenda’ goes to… President Obama!!!”

Bottom line: Reactions to tears from a leader will always be mixed. But if they’re genuine, and appropriate to the circumstances, in today’s age it’s almost certain that at least some people will be moved and inspired.

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