Enlarge /. Do you feel any pain? Go ahead and swear a little, science says.
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In recent years there has been a surprising number of studies examining the effects of swearing, especially whether it can help relieve pain – either physically or mentally (like traumatic memories or events). According to the latest study published in Frontiers in Psychology, the constant repetition of the F-word – as could be done by hitting the thumb with a hammer – can increase the pain threshold.
The technical term is the "hypoalgesic effect of cursing", best illustrated by a 2009 study by Keele University researchers in the UK in NeuroReport. The work was awarded the 2010 Ig Nobel Peace Prize "to confirm the widespread belief that swearing relieves pain." Co-author Richard Stephens, a psychologist at Keele, became interested in the subject after noticing his wife's "unsavory language" at birth and wondered if profanity could really help relieve pain. "Swearing is such a common response to pain. There must be a reason for it," Stephens told Scientific American at the time.
For this 2009 study, Stephens and his colleagues asked 67 study participants (students) to dip their hands in a bucket of ice water. They were then instructed to either swear repeatedly with the profanity of their choice or to sing a neutral word. And lo and behold, the participants said they were in less pain when they swore and could keep their hands in the bucket about 40 seconds longer than when they didn't swear. It has been suggested (among others by Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker) that it is a primitive reflex that serves as a form of catharsis.
"We have fairly good data on the mechanism that swearing triggers an emotional response in the speaker that activates the autonomic nervous system, or an acute structural response," Stephens told Ars. "It is associated with flight or struggle." In other words, swearing in response to pain can activate the amygdala, which can trigger this flight or fight response and create an adrenaline rush.
The team conducted a study in 2011 that showed that the pain relief effect worked best in subjects who didn't normally swear as often, perhaps because they attached greater emotional value to swear. They also found that the subjects' heart rate increased when they swore. "So we think the mechanism is stress-induced," said Stephens. "It is the emotional content of swearing that people access when they swear by pain."
However, this may not be the only underlying mechanism. Other researchers have pointed out that profanity can distract and thereby distract the pain, instead of serving as an actual analgesic. Stephens et al. set about exploring the issue further in their latest study. You were actually approached by an Australian company called Nurofen that sells ibuprofen pain relief products. The company was interested in sponsoring a scientific study on pain relief and swearing (without a doubt having seen the team's previous results).
Fouch or Twizpipe?
The company's advertising agency generated 60 candidate words that they thought might be fake swear words, and Stephens and a group of language experts then adopted the list and narrowed it down to two: "Fouch" and "Twizpipe". The first was chosen because, according to Stephens, it had "emotional effects", while the latter was chosen because "it had the potential to distract through humor". The team then followed the same methodology used in their 2009 study, recruiting college students to put their hands in buckets of ice water, and then repeating one of the candidate words: the F-word, Fouch, Twizpipe, and a neutral word (a Adjective) Description of a table) as a control condition. They still monitored the heart rate.
The result: "Only the traditional swear word (the F word) had an impact on the pain results," said Stephens. They also measured the subjects' pain threshold and asked them to indicate when the ice water felt painful. Those who sang the F-word waited longer before indicating that they were experiencing pain – in other words, swearing increased their pain threshold.
"Only the traditional curse word (the F word) had an impact on the pain results."
Singing "Fouch" or "Twizpipe" had no effect on either measure. Follow-up studies are likely to focus on conventional swearing because "this data does not indicate that distraction or what the word sounds like is one reason why swearing helps people deal with pain," Stephens said. "It seems like it's the meaning of the word – probably the way we learn the word, how we grow up, and the associations between those words and stress or emotion. That's probably what the power of cursing is underlying."
A fascinating result is that pronouncing the F-word had no effect on heart rate this time, unlike previous studies by the group, which also contradicts studies from other laboratories, which also showed a reaction of the autonomic nervous system to heart rate . "But that's science," said Stephens. "The world is a chaotic place and not everything goes according to plan."
Stephens and his colleagues are already pushing ahead with new experiments, this time away from explaining autonomous arousal so that the effect is more focused on cognitive explanations – especially swearing as a possible form of disinhibition. "Disinhibition is usually a bad thing when someone is unable to function in society because they are disinhibited and act inappropriately," he said.
However, there is a handful of scientific work investigating whether disinhibition could improve performance – especially a 2014 publication that found that the tennis players who grunted when the ball hit scored faster hits than those who did didn't grunt. The current research by Stephens et al. Will build on that, as will her own work from 2018, which shows that swearing can improve strength. "I think there may be a cognitive explanation that swearing can cause disinhibition," he said. "And in some situations, you can do a little more by disinhibition and not hold back."
DOI: Frontiers in Psychology, 2020. 10.3389 / fpsyg.2020.00723 (About DOIs).