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Jan 27, 2015


Last November, Qantas launched a major advertising campaign called “Feels Like Home”. It shows five real Australian travellers reuniting with their families after extended periods away, to the strains of Feels Like Home, a Randy Newman song performed by Australian artist Martha Marlow.

The two-minute montage version made me cry. Indeed, Qantas handed around boxes of tissues in its focus groups. The ad sparked so many tears that the Daily Mail dubbed Qantas “The Crying Kangaroo”.

But perhaps the ad is so successful because it evokes the well-known phenomenon of crying on aeroplanes.

Floating far above the ground in a padded chair, in a dry, sealed aeroplane cabin that hums gently, facing away from other passengers, with no phone or email interrupting our thoughts, we travel inward as well as onward. It’s a sentimental journey. We indulge in emotional thinking, watch melodramatic movies on the in-flight entertainment system, read light novels purchased in airport bookshops, and listen to maudlin music. And they make us cry.

In a 2011 episode of This American Life, Brett Martin likens the experience of flying to “some sterile, infantile travel purgatory. You’re strapped in, given a blanket, a sippy cup, and tiny silverware, forced to do what you’re told and borne away at speeds we can’t conceive, without seeing where we’re going”. No wonder we turn into big crybabies.

Particle physicist and TV presenter Brian Cox cries on planes. So does actor Jake Gyllenhaal. Richard Madden, who played Robb Stark on Game of Thrones, wept over the Red Wedding all the way home to London: “I was the crazy boy on the plane crying at about midnight.” Even civil aviation enthusiasts find themselves crying.

In 2011, Virgin Atlantic issued a jocular “emotional health warning” before some movies after a highly scientific survey on its UK Facebook page revealed 55% of respondents had experienced heightened in-flight emotions. Some 41% of male respondents had disguised their tears by burying their faces in blankets; women tended to feign “something in their eyes”.

Interestingly, the song used in the Qantas commercial also features prominently in the tear-jerking 2009 drama My Sister’s Keeper, this time performed by Edwina Hayes. It plays during a montage scene in which terminal 15-year-old leukaemia patient Kate (Sofia Vassilieva) visits the beach with her family for the last time.

When Virgin Atlantic polled its Facebook fans on which in-flight movies made them cry most, My Sister’s Keeper came in at number four. Toy Story 3, a sentimental tale of putting away childish things, led Virgin’s list of “top ten tearjerkers”.

Emotional tears contain hormones that differentiate them from the eye’s regular lubrication, or tears shed in response to an irritant such as dust or onions. Photographer Rose-Lynn Fisher discovered these stark differences in 2013 when she captured dried tears under a microscope.

“Much as only a few people can witness our toilet tears, we can cry on a plane knowing only one or two other people — our seating row neighbours — will directly observe us.”

Jeffrey Kottler’s 1996 book The Language of Tears suggests crying has an evolutionary function: as infants, we can signal our distress to nearby adults without loud cries revealing our vulnerability to predators. Dutch psychologist and crying expert Ad Vingerhoets, author of the 2013 book Why Only Humans Weep, adds that in early human communities, crying in adults could have signalled mutual trust and connectedness.

Cultural historian Thomas Dixon reminds us, however, of the range of emotions that provoke tears: joy, pride, pity, frustration and more. He also points out that the bad reputation of public crying as “emotional incontinence” stems from late-19th-century psychoanalytic literature: “that a similar shame should attach to a public stream of tears as to a public stream of urine”. (Some nutty Freudians even suggested women’s crying revealed their subconscious desire for male urination.)

The percolation of psychoanalytic ideas into mainstream discourse has led to two broad theories of crying: that it signifies a healthy release of repressed emotion; and that it represents a regression to a childlike state.

But a study in 1997 by Vingerhoets and colleagues discovered that most adults don’t cry openly in public; they wait until they’re at home, alone or in the company of one other person. Crying can be a response to stress, but it’s governed by the body’s parasympathetic nervous system — the so-called “rest and digest” functions that kick in during the aftermath of the sympathetic nervous system’s more immediate “fight and flight” reactions. It’s when we relax and reflect on our situation that we give ourselves permission to cry.

When asked to explain recent crying jags, Vingerhoet’s study participants far more frequently chose “separation” or “rejection” than other options including “pain and injury” and “criticism”. And of those who answered “rejection”, the most common subcategory they selected was “loneliness”.

Flying represents our separation from those we love. If you want to get both evolutionary and psychoanalytic, you could view separation crying as a vestigial echo of our former babyish vulnerability. In the cloistered environment of the cabin, we’re forced to confront our existential aloneness.

But while Virgin Atlantic film critic Jason Solomons suggests we cry at in-flight movie scenes that reflect our own melancholy at leaving happiness behind, or yearning for its return, Brett Martin of This American Life notices that we’re less likely to cry at the sad parts of a movie than the happy ones: “The parts where everything turns out all right.”

“Flying and films is a heady cocktail,” Solomons said, “the images and feelings so close to your eyeballs, so intimate.” And it’s the intimacy of the flying space — which Martin associates with a regression to childhood road trips — that makes a plane seat perhaps the most private kind of public space.

Think of that other hallowed public crying venue: the toilet cubicle. Like a plane, it’s small, quiet and impersonal. Much as only a few people can witness our toilet tears, we can cry on a plane knowing only one or two other people — our seating row neighbours — will directly observe us.

Aeroplanes, however, are unique among liminal public spaces because they are unmoored from the earth. As air travel has become more ordinary and frequent, we’ve stopped feeling so overwhelmed that we wingless creatures may travel at such heights and speeds. Only those afraid of flying still contemplate its singular un-earthliness.

Other travellers, however, experience this alienation from our ordinary lives as an emotional release. As Martin put it: “Something happens up there, the space between where you’re going and where you’ve left … some strange overhead compartment of the heart opens up.”

A famous Bible verse, now more often used as an epithet of exasperation, is John 11:35, “Jesus wept.” Back when humans only roamed the earth, we imagined the clouds as the domain of gods and supernatural beings. Now, we can float magically there; and like the gods of old, our change in perspective enables us to feel not just for ourselves, but also for humanity.

As W.H. Auden wrote in The Age of Anxiety (1947):

“Sob, heavy world
Sob as you spin,
Mantled in mist
Remote from the happy.”


Jun 30, 2014


For one week in January 2012, Facebook deliberately manipulated the emotional content of the news feeds seen by nearly 700,000 users, just to see how it would affect their moods. This secret mood manipulation experiment, as The Atlantic called it, is yet more proof that Silicon Valley and its poisonous culture need to be told that they don’t get to decide the future of human society.

The question, though, is whether investors, legislators and regulators, bedazzled by multibillion-dollar company valuations but baffled by the technology behind it all, have either the clue or the spine to do something about it.

While Facebook’s controversial experiment was conducted more than two years ago, the results were only published earlier this month in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in a paper titled “Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks“. The news crossed over into mainstream media over the weekend as people began to understand what Facebook had actually done.

The questions Facebook was investigating are simple enough. Are people’s moods influenced by the moods expressed by their social media contacts? If so, to what extent? A typical Facebook user’s friends, family and other contacts generate far more posts than can be shown in that user’s news feed — reportedly around 1500 items at any given time. Facebook already has processes for selecting the most “relevant” — taking into account factors such as popularity, the closeness of personal connections and, presumably, commercial reasons.

So what happens when that selection process has an emotional bias? If users see a preponderance of happy messages, do they feel left out and get depressed? Or are good and bad moods contagious?

It turn out the answer is yes. Or, as Facebook’s research blandly puts it:

“When positive expressions were reduced, people produced fewer positive posts and more negative posts; when negative expressions were reduced, the opposite pattern occurred. These results indicate that emotions expressed by others on Facebook influence our own emotions, constituting experimental evidence for massive-scale contagion via social networks …

“We also observed a withdrawal effect: People who were exposed to fewer emotional posts (of either valence) in their News Feed were less expressive overall on the following days, addressing the question about how emotional expression affects social engagement online.”

Facebook thinks it has users’ permission for this sort of emotional tinkering because, buried in its data use policy, part of its 9045-word terms of service says “we may use the information we receive about you … for internal operations, including troubleshooting, data analysis, testing, research and service improvement”.

To many of the geeks who reacted to the story across the weekend, this isn’t news. Facebook manipulates you all the time.

In one sense they’re right. Advertising companies — and that’s what Facebook is — have emotional manipulation as their primary mission. They hope we’ll feel positive about their message, buy the product, or vote for the candidate. Naturally they’ll conduct research to see what techniques sell most effectively.

But isn’t there a difference between conducting research with a clear and specific commercial aim and poking at people’s emotions to see what happens?

“Let’s call the Facebook experiment what it is: a symptom of a much wider failure to think about ethics, power and consent on platforms,” tweeted Kate Crawford, an Australian who researches the politics and ethics of data for Microsoft Research, the MIT Center for Civic Media, the Information Law Institute at NYU, and the University of New South Wales.

“Perhaps what bothers me most about the Facebook experiment: it’s just one glimpse into an industry-wide game. We are A/B testing the world,” she tweeted.

Crawford is right. This isn’t just a Facebook thing. The entire Silicon Valley realm, what I sometimes call Startupland, is run by engineers who see us less as humans with our own needs, desires and fears, and more as data to be manipulated.

The core problem here is that for all its smarts, Startupland is populated by a very narrow segment of society: highly intelligent, well-educated software engineers and their associates. Most are from privileged backgrounds — Stanford University is the main gateway on the United States west coast, Harvard on the east.

And most, it must be said, are white males. My experience of tech conferences on San Francisco and San Jose is that white men do the presentations, perhaps along with a smattering of middle-class Asian people. You might see Hispanics serving food and drink, while blacks might provide security muscle. It’s a clearer, sharper racial stratification than you see in Australia.

By coincidence, last week Quartz published an essay by top-shelf software engineer Carlos Bueno saying that the next thing Silicon Valley needs to disrupt is its own culture:

“Silicon Valley has … created a make-believe cult of objective meritocracy, a pseudo-scientific mythos to obscure and reinforce the belief that only people who look and talk like us are worth noticing. After making such a show of burning down the bad old rules of business, the new ones we’ve created seem pretty similar.

“It’s even been stated [by Max Levchin, a founder of PayPal]: ‘The notion that diversity in an early team is important or good  is completely wrong. You should try to make the early team as non-diverse as possible.'”

Bueno is right. The geeks should not inherit the earth. Not this narrow little enclave of geeks, anyway.


Aug 26, 2008


Colin — the abandoned baby whale, whose fate has been played out in public over the last several days — is the new battle-zone in the interminable war of reason and emotion.

Colin invites two powerful reactions. Some people feel intensely moved by his story. He was left by his mother, he was innocent and in danger, he could not look after himself. People wanted to help — wanted to keep in him their swimming pool, breast feed him, pay for his education — but it was all too difficult; even the ADF couldn’t save Colin.

Then there were the hard-headed, hard-hearted people who spoke about Darwin and “nature red in tooth and claw”, who reminded us that many baby whales die all the time, but don’t manage to do it in public places and so pass unwept.

I confess I’m less interested in Colin, more interested in our reactions. It’s sentimental to cry for a baby whale. That’s not because it’s sentimental to cry, but because the passion is not finding its real object. Colin was a symbol. People poured human sympathy into him; as if to say in a roundabout way: “I feel abandoned; I need to be rescued; I need love and kindness.”

It wasn’t so much Colin people were grieving for, as for themselves. That’s why it is so dangerous to cross a whale lover; they react as if you had just insulted them — and that’s the giveaway. In the secret recesses of imaginative projection, they are Colin. That’s why talk about Darwin and so on struck them as evil; it would be like spouting the survival of the fittest to a lost and frightened child.

And can’t we say much the same of the cool rationalists? Why do they hate it so much when people get worked up about Colin? Secretly, they can’t bear to see all that tenderness going in the wrong direction. Into themselves they shout:

You’re so feeling and generous to him — what about me, sitting here: don’t I need love, don’t I need to be understood and rescued and have a few million dollars spent making me OK? But I just know that because I don’t look as cuddly as a baby whale you’d never spend that sympathy on me. I hate you and your stupid, ugly whale.

I imagine a good few relationships have soured over this: Colin bust ups, Colin divorces. It wasn’t his fault; it was all about us.

Particularly given he was actually Collette.


Dec 20, 2007


Good drama deals in empathy. It’s about characters we care about being put under pressure and forced to make choices that go to the very heart of who they are. In the first season of 24, Jack Bauer is torn between saving his family and saving the world. Tony Soprano constantly balances the tension of the choice between being a good man or a powerful one. And because we understand the consequences, we’re there for every step of the ride. Empathy.

The amazing thing about Dexter (Thursday, 8:30pm, Showcase) is that its moral universe is so far from our collective experience that it could almost be called inhuman. And inhuman doesn’t normally go with empathy. We can empathise with anything as viewers – animals, insects, even inanimate objects – as long as they display recognisably human characteristics. But Dexter is dangerously close to being so psychopathic that he’s barely human at all.

Dexter, you see, is a serial killer. Police blood spatter expert by day, by night he indulges his compulsions by tracking down and murdering the baddies who slipped through the crime-fighting net. He’s fortunate, really, in that he had a cop father who recognised his urges early on and channeled them towards vigilante justice rather than random slaughter. But still, he’s a murderer.

Not that a murderer is necessarily impossible to empathise with. Tony Soprano knocked off his fair share of people, some of whom really didn’t deserve it, and we were still on board with him (even if we hated ourselves for it). Because in Tony we saw the fallibility of humankind. We empathised.

Dexter almost prides himself on his complete dislocation from human emotion. He murders without remorse. He has a girlfriend who he appears devoted to, but his voiceover tells us he is faking everything. Every laugh, every hug, every gesture of affection. His performance, he brags, is so humanlike that no-one can tell the difference.

But that’s the thing – it’s a performance. It’s very tough for an audience to empathise with a character who doesn’t empathise himself. Dexter’s emotionless murdering is strangely compelling, but without that emotional tension, viewers will begin to wonder why they should care.

And that is the challenge for Dexter. How to make an audience feel empathy towards a character who is, by his own admission, barely human? Well, in the first couple of episodes there have been some beautifully-judged hints that suggest Dexter might not the reliable narrator he thinks he is. That perhaps he feels just a little more than he lets on.

And an inhuman serial killer battling unwelcome human feelings? Now that’s a cracking yarn.