(Note: I accidentally posted a draft of this yesterday before it was ready for publishing. I deleted the draft and am reposting it today with some additional editing and new material. I apologize for any confusion.)
I myself do not routinely swear. But when I accidentally do something stupid and hurt myself, I will find myself involuntarily swearing. I am sure that many people have had that same experience or at least being strongly tempted to swear when experiencing pain. But why do we do that?
A study reported on by the BBC says that swearing may actually be helpful in reducing pain.
A study by Keele University researchers found volunteers who cursed at will could endure pain nearly 50% longer than civil-tongued peers.
They believe swearing helps us downplay being hurt in favour of a more pain-tolerant machismo.
The work by Dr Richard Stephens’ team appears in the journal NeuroReport.
Dr Stephens, from Keele’s school of psychology, came up with the idea for the study after swearing when he accidentally hit his thumb with a hammer as he built a garden shed.
He recruited 64 volunteers to take part and each individual was asked to submerge their hand in a tub of freezing water for as long as possible while repeating a swear word of their choice.
They were then asked to repeat the experiment, this time using a more commonplace word that they would use to describe a table.
Despite their initial expectations, the researchers found that the volunteers were able to keep their hands plunged in the ice water for a longer period of time when repeating the swear word.
Not everyone benefited from swearing. Nine of the participants failed to show increased tolerance for pain. Despite the small sample size of 67, Stephens gets results that have p<0.001. I read the original paper (not freely available without a subscription unfortunately although you can read the abstract here) and found another interesting feature of the study:
Although both sexes experienced a reduction in perceived pain in the swearing condition, females did so to a greater extent… Swearing increased heart rate in both the sexes, but more so for females compared with males.
I am not sure why women experience greater benefits. Is it because they perhaps swear less in daily life? This may also explain the widespread stories in a bygone era of genteel women surprising everyone around them by swearing during childbirth, using words that others thought they wouldn’t even know, let alone use. The excruciating pain women report experiencing during the event may call for really strong language to be able to deal with it.
The same researcher repeated their study with 71 volunteers but with a new variable that asked participants how times a day they swore. (Again, the paper is is not freely available but the abstract is here.) They found that their earlier results (that swearing increased pain tolerance) were confirmed but they also found that that people who routinely swore had reduced benefit.
So the lesson is clear: don’t swear too much if you want to get the benefit of it while in pain.
Since the participants were asked to pick their own swear word to use to combat the pain, it seems like it only requires the user to view it as a swear word. I wonder if people who think that even relatively mild words like ‘damn’ objectionable would find that they would also reduce pain. How far down the chain of swearing would one have to go before the effect disappears? Would the word ‘heck’ work? Would the nonsensical swearing of Ned Flanders be as effective in combating pain?