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The Science of Profanity

Like most things in life, timing and context are key

By Jill (Conquering Cognitions)Published about a year ago 3 min read
The Science of Profanity
Photo by krakenimages on Unsplash

I have never needed a swear jar nor had my mouth washed out with soap.

For most of my life, if a swear word slipped out, it was an accident, and I would immediately cover my mouth in embarrassment. For some reason, profanity doesn’t sound right coming from me. It’s like when a dog talks or a three-year-old says pontificate — people stop and stare.

Although cursing doesn't come naturally to me, I'm considering putting more effort into developing this skill after reading research on its benefits.

Cursing Helps You Cope with Pain

To be honest, I didn’t need research to tell me that cursing alleviates pain. I have dropped enough things on my toe to know that releasing a well-timed swear word makes me feel better. Even when alone, I still instinctively cover my mouth and apologize, but I feel less pain while doing so.

Science supports my observations — swearing helps increase our pain tolerance and decreases pain perception. One study found that subjects who repeated a swear word tolerated the pain from immersing their hand in icy water better than those who said a neutral one.

And, no, you can’t substitute an “almost” curse word and get the same benefit.

This 2020 study found that “fouch” and “twizpipe”, emotionally arousing and humorous words, did not help with pain management in the same way as conventional profanity.

So, follow the science. Stop making up swear words and use actual profanity when you need to rip an old band-aid off your skin.

By Lopez Robin on Unsplash

Swearing Is Powerful

A 2018 study published in Psychology of Sport and Exercise found that people who cursed out loud, versus saying a neutral word, performed better on power measures.

Those who repeated swear words displayed increased performance on physical power (30 seconds of pedaling on a stationary bike with resistance) and physical strength (a handgrip test), but it did not impact their cardiovascular function.

If you want to bench press more weight or sprint ahead on a stationary bike, a well-placed curse word might be exactly what you need to achieve a PR. But, if you are being chased by a bear, save your breath and focus your energy on evasive maneuvers. (Consult with a professional, such as a park ranger or writer for National Geographic, before trying to evade a bear.)

Profanity and Honesty Have a Complicated Relationship

Spontaneous use of profanity can be surprising at times, but it is often a genuine, authentic expression of feelings. Swearing is an unedited response to something that triggers a strong reaction.

That being said, are people who use profanity more likely to be honest?

The research is mixed on this question.

One study analyzed 73,000 Facebook (FB) profiles (with the user’s consent) to explore the connection between the use of profanity and honesty. The researchers found that those who cursed more on FB were also more honest in their FB status updates.

This same study also found that U.S. states with a higher profanity rate had a higher integrity rate as measured by the state’s stance on transparency, honesty, number of ethics commissions, and governmental accountability.

This research was widely cited in mainstream media, and people used it to justify their use of profanity.

Given the popularity of the study, other scientists scrutinized the data, and in 2018, they published this article which did not support the original conclusions. The most recent review of the data found that honest people tend to use less profanity, not more.

The bottom line is that there is a complex relationship between profanity and honesty, so no need to swear simply to prove a point.

Final Thoughts

After reviewing the research, I recognize that a few curse words might be a useful addition to my vocabulary, especially after stubbing my toe or while trying to open a stubborn pickle jar.

Although swearing may be helpful in some situations, not all profanity is productive or beneficial. If you are using swear words to harm someone or vent inappropriate hostility, you are wrong.

Like most things in life, there is a time and a place for everything— context is key!


About the Creator

Jill (Conquering Cognitions)

Outdoor Enthusiast | Animal Lover | Mom to Five | Psychologist Turned Writer

Reader insights


Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

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