Men are wimps who hide their tears under blankets on planes.
In a survey by Virgin Atlantic, 41 percent of men on airplanes admitted to burying “themselves in blankets to hide tears in their eyes from other passengers.”
There’s even an episode of "This American Life" dedicated to the phenomenon — and one man who claims to cry at every single movie he watches on an airplane (partial list includes “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Bend It Like Beckham” and “What a Girl Wants.”)
Although the percentage of women who cry on airplanes is unknown, the Virgin Atlantic survey concluded that about 55 percent of people admit to being more emotional while flying. And scientists have confirmed the sentiment, although there aren’t (yet) any studied explanations for why it seems to affect men so profoundly.
A study by a behavioral scientist in the Netherlands determined that adult humans are most likely to cry when dealing with issues of attachment or lack, including loneliness, separation, or feelings of powerlessness. Even when crying happy tears, these emotions can usually be traced back to strong bonds — which some philosophers might take a step further to the temporality of relationships and deep-rooted fear of losing them.
So crying on airplanes may be more common due to a combination of: being alone among other people, powerless to control the direction of the plane, and unable to contact friends and family on the ground. (If this theory holds any weight, as more aircraft introduce onboard Wi-Fi it may be possible that in-air crying will decrease.)
A second theory is based on distraction. While traveling in a plane, activities are at a bare minimum and the brain is able to fully invest in any entertainment — which could make for a more powerful emotional response. But even in a movie theater, people watch films without distraction and are (many times) able to emerge without having become blubbering messes.
One academic paper from George Mason University hypothesizes that the airplane cabin is a perfect landscape, fertile for emotional tears. The in-flight entertainment’s small screen size, personal audio, and close proximity to the passenger creates a feeling of intimacy. However given that cabin lights may be on and the passenger is literally rubbing shoulders with a stranger, the final effect is jarring: deep connection with a movie in an environment with no real connection, neither to the surrounding people nor the physical space.
And even the physical space itself could be making people cry.
The pressure and oxygen levels in the airplane cabin are similar to what a human would experience at about 8,000 feet above sea level, according to Tonic. This decreases blood oxygenation, which in turn means that the brain is getting less oxygen, which can affect mood. According to one study from the U.S. Institute of Medicine, “the initial mood experienced at altitude is euphoria, followed by depression.”
Factor in that free glass of wine with meal service, the stress of air travel, and likely sleep deprivation and it’s not entirely unlikely you'll shed a few tears while in transit.
Choose your in-flight movie wisely.