“Swearing can relieve pain – but only if you’re the kind of person who rarely resorts to cursing and swearing in normal life!” That’s the finding of a U.K. study presented at the British Psychological Society’s annual conference last May.
This may be particularly significant for females, a demographic that tends to swear less frequently than our male counterparts in everyday life anyway. Hubbies, in fact, are sometimes utterly shocked to hear their normally sweet-tongued wives let loose during the pain of prolongued childbirth. Ditto for heart attacks.
According to Advertising Age, 72% of North American men say they curse in public compared to just 55% of women, and 74% of 18 to 34-year-olds do it versus 48% of us who are 55-plus.
Previous studies done on swearing’s effect on pain conducted by the same researchers, Drs. Richard Stephens and Claudia Umland from Keele University, found that swearing can actually reduce the feeling of pain. However, this latest study, published in The Journal of Pain, examined whether people who swear more often in everyday life get as much pain relief from cursing as those who swear less frequently.
Pain tolerance was assessed in this research by how long participants were able to keep their hands in icy water – a scenario that I’m guessing is not nearly as terrifyingly painful as a heart attack.
During the chilly exercise, the study participants could repeat an expletive of their choice or chant a neutral word. When swearing, the volunteers reported less pain and on average were able to endure about 40 seconds longer.
The study revealed that the more often people swear in daily life, the less extra time they were able to hold their hand in the icy water when swearing, compared with when not swearing.
Dr. Stephens explained:
“The important message from this latest study is interesting because, while saying that swearing as a response to pain might be beneficial, there is evidence that if you swear too often in everyday situations, the power of swearing won’t be there when you really might need it. “
“While I wouldn’t advocate the prescription of swearing as part of a medicalised pain management strategy, our research suggests that we should be tolerant of people who swear while experiencing acute pain.”
Psychologist Dr. Steven Pinker of Harvard University, whose book The Stuff of Thought includes a detailed analysis of swearing, compared pain-induced swearing with what happens in the brain of a cat that somebody accidentally sits on.
“I suspect that swearing taps into a defensive reflex in which an animal that is suddenly injured or confined erupts in a furious struggle, accompanied by an angry vocalization meant to startle and intimidate an attacker.”
But for us humans, Dr. Stephens cautions:
“The more we swear, the less emotionally potent our words become.”
Dr. Timothy Jay of the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, reminds us that swearing is ubiquitous:
“We say taboo words as soon as we speak and we continue to swear into old age even through dementia and senile decline.”