The science behind why we cry on airplanes
On my last flight from Europe (Amsterdam to Los Angeles), KLM’s in-flight entertainment system featured powerful, award-winning films like Spotlight, The Big Short and The Martian. I watched This Means War and The Proposal. I cried during both films, blanket over face. This is crazy because A) I never watch these types of movies and B) I’m a robot, so I rarely cry in general. Even if you have no soft bone in your body, like robots, all the rules change when you're flying.
On mostly long flights, passengers find themselves not only bawling but choosing rom-coms they'd never watch back home. Crying on flights has basically become a pandemic, so much that Virgin Atlantic released an in-flight, “emotional health” warning before programming because flight attendants were constantly seeing passengers sobbing during movies. So Virgin Atlantic went out to investigate. They conducted a survey that confirmed 55 percent of respondents said they experienced heightened emotions while flying (44 percent of men reported hiding their tears from other passengers).
So why do men and women pick heart-wrenching, tear-jerking movies they would never watch to fully bawl their eyes out? And why do they cry more on planes?
There are actually MANY reasons, and this is where I sound smart.
One theory suggests the common emotional trigger for crying is a feeling of powerlessness or helplessness that stimulates tears. On a plane, we surrender TOTAL control. The flight is not in our hands, so we feel vulnerable and our subconscious brain reacts. We also feel emotional, anxious and stressed, which triggers the tears (and the rom-com basically nudges them). Remember the viral video of the woman being kicked off an American Airlines flight, crying like it was the end of the world? Stressful situation, yes, but she already had these emotional factors working against her before she got booted.
Some passengers try to combat emotional and anxiety triggers their own way (if you see someone order a cocktail on your 10 AM flight, well... there's two reasons for that). Some psychologists have found links between altitude and emotions/moods. Not only is flying stressful and anxiety inducing, there is less oxygen at 20,000 feet high, which makes us tired, meaning our threshold for tears is a lot lower. The scholar I am, I believe these emotional triggers rise even before the flight, too, at the airport, where I often stress-eat on “bad” food, like pizza, cookies, Combos, whatever.
Lastly, there’s a psychological factor involved with actually watching the movie. We’re plugged in with headphones and personal screens in the dark, so we have the perception that no one else is around us, which helps tears flow. How crazy is that? It’s why thousands of men might find the plane a “safe” spot to tap into their emotional sides and just let the tears rip.
Moral of the story: We’re going to cry, a lot, on airplanes. Robots don't fly. Even if you’re not a huge fan of rom-coms, you'll watch one, like Notting Hill or whatever. If you’re flying long distances, maybe avoid the entertainment system and download my list of 8 TV shows that are perfect for long-haul binge watching. They are (mostly) tearjerk free!