Published February 10, 2014

A new paper in Personality and Social Psychology Review is out, arguing that grief serves an adaptive function. Thus, the title. Today’s post discusses the argument in the paper.

(First, yes, I’ve been gone for a while. I was trapped near the inner circle of fault. But now I’m back.)

The paper, by Winegard et al., opens with the following vignette:

A bereaved wife every weekend walks one mile to place flowers on her deceased husband’s cemetery stone. Neither rain nor snow prevents her from making this trip, one she has been making for 2 years. However poignant the scene, and however high our temptation to exclude it from the cold logic of scientific scrutiny, it presents researchers with a perplexing puzzle that demands reflection. The deceased husband, despite all of his widow’s solicitude, cannot return to repay his wife’s devotion. Why waste time, energy, effort, resources—why, in other words, grieve for a social bond that can no longer compensate such dedication?

This does seem to be a good question. I mused about this a little in a discussion of love and broken hearts a year ago. The emotional pain, and everything that goes along with it, does seem puzzling. Why cry over spilt milk?

                          Grief … what is it good for?

                          Grief … what is it good for?

Winegard et al. locate the puzzle in costs. This is a key point given the argument that they want to make. As you can see from the opening passage, their idea is that the “time, energy, effort, resources” are being wasted on the dead, who, they correctly point out, are notorious for failing to reciprocate. (I except here of course the Dead Men of Dunharrow, who really came through in a pinch.) Time and resources are being wasted in the sense that they could be used more productively. Walking to the grave in this example, then, carries an opportunity cost, which is the next best thing that one could do with a given resource. (I’m gratified that these authors lean so heavily on the notion of opportunity costs, which I have recently written about in a quite different context.) It’s clear that the puzzle that Winegard et al. have in mind has to do with the very large opportunity costs being paid by those who grieve.

Their explanation is that bearing these costs acts as a signal. Drawing on Costly Signaling Theory (CST), they argue that paying these costs sends signals to other people regarding one’s value as a social partner. Recall from CST that for a signal to convey information, the cost must depend on the underlying quality being signaled. Crucially, the size of the cost must depend on a property of the organism doing the signaling; in the usual example of a peacock’s tail, the cost of a bit tail is marginally lower for higher-quality organisms. The authors write:

We suggest that grief functions like these (and other) hard-to-fake signals because it is costly and conveys information about the underlying traits of the griever. Humans’ prolonged grief response may act as an honest signal of prosocial proclivities, most importantly, of the proclivity to form strong, non-calculated bonds.

Their claim, then, turns on the idea that grief will be less costly for people with greater “prosocial proclivities.” (As a complete aside, this is more or less what the anonymous yet obviously insightful commenter Aliera suggested in my “broken heart” post, writing: “perhaps extreme reactions to unrequited love or rejection (in the form of creative endeavors, passionate manifestos, devotion-displays) might serve as signals of one’s ability and willingness to commit to a romantic partner in general. These signals, then, are actually—and unknowingly—directed toward new potential mates who might now consider the individual attractive as a long-term mate based on the quality, costliness, and honesty of the display.”) In any case, returning to the paper, the argument rests on the idea that less prosocial people have better things to do with their time than more prosocial people (my italics):

A relatively low commitment social strategy, one that consists of cheating and manipulating others, may constitute a viable social strategy ... If so, intense grief would cost those who pursue such a strategy more relative to those who are inclined to form strong bonds because their time, energy, and resources would be better spent searching for and exploiting less costly opportunities.

I find myself puzzled when I take this claim in juxtaposition with the opening vignette. The story about the woman turns on the idea that she could be doing something else with her time and energy. That, indeed, is supposed to be the root of the puzzle: that she is paying substantial opportunity costs by visiting the grave. These costs are supposed to animate the issue in the first place: Why are people paying such huge costs, in the form of all the things that they’re not doing because they’re grieving? It seems clear that the woman in question has more than just the two options of either grieving on the one hand or exploiting others on the other. People have many things they might be doing at any given moment besides those two activities. In short, it seems from the opening vignette that the authors not only concede but require that it be true that grieving carries very big opportunity costs, even if one is a prosocial sort of person. Yet their argument also requires that the opportunity costs of grieving people to be small, at least relative to non-grieving people.

So, while the logic of the opportunity cost argument turns on the idea that non-grieving people have bigger opportunity costs than grieving people, I see no particular reason to believe that the benefits of searching for and exploiting others—the thing that non-grievers are up to—carries especially greater benefits than other activities that either they or grievers might do.

Further, suppose that it were true that, generally, how much one grieves depends on what else one might be doing with one’s time, such that people who grieve have less they might be doing, and so are bearing lower opportunity costs by grieving. In that case, unless one grants that “searching for and exploiting others” is an especially valuable way to spend one’s time, then grieving will wind up, just like other costly signals, signaling the underlying quality that keeps the signal honest: that one doesn’t have big opportunity costs. This property—not having much else valuable that one might be doing—seems like a puzzling quality to signal, but I suppose it’s possible.

In short, if the asymmetry in opportunity costs for grievers versus non-grievers doesn’t hold, then the rest of the argument in the paper doesn’t hold. I hope I am not misunderstood. I think grieving is indeed mysterious, as my Love post implied. And of course I think the evolutionary point of view will help to clarify matters.

For my part, I’m skeptical in general of explanations that turn on the notion of Types, to use the language of game theory. It seems perfectly plausible to me that many people might form very deep attachments to particular friends, kin, and lovers, yet be very exploitative in other relationships. I have little doubt that people who viciously exploit strangers nonetheless grieve when their parents die, limiting the information that is conveyed by observations of grieving. The fact that people can vary their degree of exploitation versus prosociality over time makes me very skeptical that grief and related emotions have to do with signaling one’s Type. Nothing, as a logical matter, prevents someone from grieving at time one from being exploitative at time two.

Not that I have a much better idea. Tooby and Cosmides propose a simulation view and a recalibrational view, both of which seem plausible:

Paradoxically, grief provoked by death may be a byproduct of mechanisms designed to take imagined situations as input: it may be intense so that, if triggered by imagination in advance, it is properly deterrent. Alternatively-or additionally-grief may be intense in order to recalibrate weightings in the decision rules that governed choices prior to the death. If your child died because you made an incorrect choice (and given the absence of a controlled study with alternative realities, a bad outcome always raises the probability that you made an incorrect choice), then experiencing grief will recalibrate you for subsequent choices. Death may involve guilt, grief, and depression because of the problem of recalibration of weights on courses of action.


Winegard, B. M., Reynolds, T., Baumesiter, R. F., Winegard, B., & Maner, J. K. (in press). Grief Functions as an Honest Indicator of CommitmentPersonality and Social Psychology Review.