If you’ve ever stubbed your toe in the presence of small children, you’ll understand the heated sensation of panic that rises from within when your body is crying out to scream a swear but you must censor yourself for the sake of the innocents. For many of us, swearing when in pain is a reflex as uncontrollable as a sneeze, and new research has revealed that we do it with good reason as specific swear words can actually ease the sensation of pain. The findings, published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, used pain studies to investigate the benefits of swearing and found that some words are more effective than others.
The exact mechanism through which swearing alleviates painful experiences remains unclear, but the bulk of the research done in this area has been carried out by Richard Stephens, a psychologist from Keele University in the United Kingdom. His first profanity epiphany came when it was found that swearing could help participants in a study carried out over a decade ago to tolerate having their hand immersed in ice water, a common test used to measure pain.
Follow up research to the cold hand test found that the hypoalgesic effect, that is, how effective something is in relieving pain, of swearing was impacted by how much people swore in their everyday lives. Those who swore a lot received less of a benefit from breaking out the naughty words than those who refrained from swearing most of the time. And the healing powers of offensive language didn’t end there. Stephens’ research also found that the healing effects of crass language could transcend language as taboo gestures such as “flipping the bird” also had a beneficial effect when in pain.
In his latest research, alongside colleague Olly Robertson, Stephens investigated the impact of switching the expletives when testing how long participants could stomach submerging their hand in ice water. They wanted to explore if specific words were more effective or if made up expletives such as “frouch” could hold some analgesic benefit.
They challenged 92 participants to see how long they could bare to hold their hand in 3 to 5°C (37 to 41°C) water while repeating four categories of words. The first was a conventional swearword, like “fuck”, then a neutral word that was chosen by the participant such as “table”, and finally two made-up swear words selected by the experimenters. Alongside fouch, they chose the catchy word “twizpipe”. It was found that the F word improved participants’ pain threshold by 32 percent compared to the neutral and made-up words, which carried no benefit at all.
"While it is not properly understood how swear words gain their power, it has been suggested that swearing is learned during childhood and that aversive classical conditioning contributes to the emotionally arousing aspects of swear word use," the researchers write in their paper. "This suggests that how and when we learn conventional swear words is an important aspect of how they function."
So, the next time you get caught letting the F word slip after an untimely toe stub, feel free to whip out this article as your defense.