Watch your language! Curse words in the wrong context can get us in trouble.
According to a recent survey, a majority of Americans use expletives every day, with one in four letting out their first cuss word of the day before breakfast. In fact, swearing is the most common response to frustrations or stressful situations—whether finance-related, matters of the heart, or professional woes—according to 63% of survey participants.
While cursing may provoke scorn among some, research suggests that the practice helps us manage stress and possibly provides measurable health benefits. From improving pain tolerance to providing a boost to physical strength and athletic performance, here’s what studies say about using swear words.
Do you ever find yourself uttering an obscenity after stubbing a toe or accidentally touching a scalding surface? According to a study published in Frontiers in Psychology, this response may be more than a knee-jerk reaction—it could help us deal with the pain.
Evidence from previous studies revealed several explanations for why cursing has this effect. These include the “attention modulation” theory, which posits that the descending pain inhibitory system uses cognitive processes (ie, distracting attention from whatever is causing the pain) to reduce the overall perception of pain. Another theory suggests that swearing can prompt stress-induced analgesia through increased autonomic arousal. Some research has suggested that using swear words provokes an emotional response, which increases heart rate and skin conductance, which in turn reduces pain.
In light of this, the 2020 study compared the impacts of using traditional swear words, like the F-word, and two made-up curse words: “fouch” and “twizpipe.” Researchers studied a cohort of 92 healthy individuals, with an average age of 28 years. Participants were exposed to non-harmful pain stimuli, including hand immersion in ice-cold water. Some were allowed to repeatedly use swear words, some were only allowed to use the made-up swear words, others were only allowed to use neutral words in response. Researchers measured subjects’ emotion rating, humor rating, distraction rating, pain threshold, pain tolerance, pain perception score, and change from resting heart rate.
Researchers found that conventional swearing resulted in a 32% increase in pain threshold scores and a 33% increase in pain tolerance. Using curse words also increased subjects’ ratings for emotion, humor, and distraction, compared with the neutral word group. While the made-up curse words increased subjects’ ratings for emotion and humor, they didn’t demonstrate any impact on pain threshold or tolerance.
Researchers concluded that the analgesic qualities of using cuss words appear to be related to how and when those words are learned, with aversive classical conditioning contributing to their ability to elicit an emotional response.
John McEnroe may be more infamous for his mid-play meltdowns than he is famous for his tennis skills, but his tirades may actually have been part of what made him a top player. Evidence suggests that cursing aloud can help us reach higher peaks in physical performance.
The researchers behind one study, published in Psychology in Sport and Exercise, hypothesized that swearing may increase pain tolerance by activating the sympathetic nervous system, which suggests that cursing may also affect improvements in strength and power.
Researchers used a cohort of 81 individuals in two experiments to measure the impacts of a repeated swear word vs a neutral word, during anaerobic and isometric exercise. The study found that swearing resulted in a 4.6% increase in initial power during a 30-second stationary bicycle test in the first experiment, and an 8.2% increase in maximum hand-grip strength in the second experiment.
Interestingly, researchers did not observe any effect from swearing on cardiovascular or autonomic functions, which were measured using heart rate, heart rate variability, blood pressure, and skin conductance. The exact mechanism that produces the improved performance remains unclear.
A sign of honesty and intelligence?
While cursing may be culturally associated with disrepute, some research suggests that swearing may actually be a sign of greater levels of honesty.
One study, published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, used three experiments to test whether those who regularly use profanity are more or less dishonest than those who opt for cleaner language. All three experiments found a positive association between using curse words and honesty.
“We found a consistent positive relationship between profanity and honesty; profanity was associated with less lying and deception at the individual level and with higher integrity at the society level,” the authors wrote.
Another study, published in Language Sciences, examined the common assumption that those who use more swear words have a smaller vocabulary. Researchers compared subjects’ general verbal fluency and their knowledge and use of taboo words, in spoken and written formats.
“A folk assumption about colloquial speech is that taboo words are used because speakers cannot find better words with which to express themselves: because speakers lack vocabulary,” the authors wrote.
However, they found that, “Fluency is fluency, people who swear aren’t necessarily otherwise inarticulate, and, arguably, a good taboo lexicon may be considered a complement to the lexicon as [a] whole, ideally a mechanism for emotional expression of all sorts: anger, frustration, and derogation, but also surprise and elation.”
Overall, their findings suggested that “the ability to generate taboo language is not an index of overall language poverty.”
Tread lightly with your profanity
Of course, swear words aren’t always appropriate, and using them doesn’t always lead to a good outcome. As demonstrated in a study published in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology, using profanity can result in others thinking less of you. The study found that those who cursed tended to give off an impression of lower intelligence and untrustworthiness.
Bottom line? While cussing does offer some benefits, it’s wise to pick the time and place carefully.