FOR A VERY long time, conventional wisdom held that swearing was not a useful response to pain. Many psychologists believed that swearing would actually make pain feel worse, thanks to a cognitive distortion known as catastrophizing. When we catastrophize we leap to the conclusion that the bad thing that is currently happening is the absolute worst thing. We’re usually catastrophizing when we say things like, “This is terrible! I just can’t!” Swearing was thought to reinforce that feeling of helplessness.
But this troubled Richard Stephens, a psychologist and author of Black Sheep: The Hidden Benefits of Being Bad, who wondered “why swearing, a supposedly maladaptive response to pain, is such a common pain response.” Like all of us, he’s hit his thumb with a hammer enough times to know that swearing seems to be an unavoidable response. So he set out to find out whether swearing really does make pain feel worse.
Somehow, he persuaded 67 of his undergraduate students at Keele University in Staffordshire, England, to stick their hands in ice-cold water for as long as they could stand, and do it not just once but twice, once while swearing and once not. (The Keele University School of Psychology Research Ethics Committee approved the study, which might be something to ponder if you’re choosing your future alma mater.) The thinking behind the experiment was as follows: If swearing is so maladaptive, then the volunteers would give up much faster while they were cursing than if they were saying another, neutral word.
To make it a fair test, the students were allowed only one swear word and one neutral word and the order of the swearing and neutral immersions was randomized. Stephens asked them for five words they would use if they dropped a hammer on their thumb and five words to describe a table. Then he took the first swear word that appeared in the first list and its counterpart from the second list. When I did the experiment, my words were: “arrgh, no, fuck, bugger, shit” and “flat, wooden, sturdy, shiny, useful,” which meant saying “fuck” in one trial and “sturdy” in the other.
The results could best be summarized by the phrase “Maladaptive, my ass!” It turned out that, when they were swearing, the intrepid volunteers could keep their hands in the water nearly 50 percent longer as when they used their non-cursing, table-based adjectives. Not only that, while they were swearing the volunteers’ heart rates went up and their perception of pain went down. In other words, the volunteers experienced less pain while swearing. It’s an easy experiment to try for yourself at home, or at a party if you have the right kind of friends. All you need is a bowl of ice water and a stopwatch. So why wasn’t this experiment done soon after the invention of the ice cube?
“Pain used to be thought of as a purely biological phenomenon, but actually pain is very much psychological. The same level of injury will hurt more or less in different circumstances,” Stephens says. We know, for example, that if male volunteers are asked to rate how painful a stimulus is, most of them will say it hurts less if the person collecting the data is a woman. Pain isn’t a simple relationship between the intensity of a stimulus and the severity of your response. Circumstances, your personality, your mood, even the experience of previous pain all affect the way we experience a physical hurt.
What Does Swearing Do to the Brain?
When studying the effect of swearing, Stephens doesn’t assume that swearing has induced a particular emotional state in all of his volunteers. Instead he, like many other psychologists, quantifies the degree of each volunteer’s arousal using their heart rate and galvanic skin response (roughly speaking, a measure of how sweaty-palmed you are; researchers attach small electrodes to volunteers’ fingertips. These detect levels of stress, fear, anxiety, or excitement).
In the first of the ice-water experiments, Stephens showed that swearing really did change the volunteers’ arousal levels. “As well as making the ice water feel less painful, we also showed that swearing causes effects on various parts of the body. It does increase heart rate: It seems to cause the fight-or-flight response. So if we think that swearing can help with pain because it causes emotional arousal, then what about doing something that just causes emotional arousal?”
Stephens designed a particularly cunning experiment with one of his undergraduates, Claire Allsop. This study was so neatly devised that she won a prestigious award from the British Psychological Society for it. Allsop wanted to know whether she could increase pain tolerance by making someone feel more aggressive. If pain tolerance depends on “innate” aggression then it shouldn’t be possible to induce mild-mannered people to suffer for longer. But if, as the swearing study showed, the same person can stand far greater levels of pain when swearing than when not, might swearing actually cause aggression levels to rise, increase arousal, and help us deal with pain that way?
She followed in her mentor’s footsteps, and managed to persuade 40 of her fellow undergraduates to repeat the ice-water test. “We were looking at things we could do in the lab and one easy way is to have them play a first-person shooter game,” explains Stephens. In fact, each of her volunteers played either a first-person shooter—one of those video games where you run around trying to kill people before they kill you—or a golf game. To test exactly how the game had affected the volunteers, Allsop then had them fill in a hostility questionnaire where they rated themselves from 1 to 5 against adjectives like explosive, irritable, calm, or kindly. Finally, she used a very clever test to see how aggressively primed the students were. The test is a kind of solitary hangman—she showed the volunteers prompts like “explo_e” or “_ight.” Those who responded with “explode” and “fight” she classified as feeling more aggressive than those who thought of “explore” or “light.”
The students scored consistently higher on the aggression measures when they played the shoot-’em-up rather than the golf game, rating themselves as more hostile on the questionnaire and coming up with more violent imagery in the solo hangman challenge. But did it do anything for their pain?
“We basically showed the same pattern of effect as we did for swearing: They could tolerate [the ice water] longer, and said they perceived it as less painful, and they also showed a rise in heart rate.” After the golf game the male students could immerse their hands for an average of 117 seconds, females an average of 106 seconds. After shooting people, those times jumped to 195 seconds for the men and 174 seconds for the women. That’s around three minutes. If you’re in any doubt whether or not that’s a noble feat I defy you to try it. We did the same experiment in our laboratory (somewhat informally), comparing swearing with positive affirmations like, “Emma, you can do it.” I couldn’t. I’ve lost my notes, but I think I lasted all of ninety seconds—much shorter than my swearing best, which was just over three minutes.
Does this mean that people who are inherently aggressive are more likely to handle pain better? To test this, as part of her undergraduate research Kristin Neil and her colleagues at the University of Georgia looked at the relationship between how aggressive someone is and how much pain they can stand. She asked 74 male undergraduates to take part in a set of “reaction-time contests,” ostensibly because she wanted to check how fast the students could press a button. But the real reason was rather different.
In Neil’s lab, volunteers were given “reaction buttons” to press. They were told to imagine themselves like gunslingers in a western—they had to be faster than their (unseen) opponent at pressing the button after a cue in order to win the game. She also introduced an interesting wrinkle. Next to the reaction button was a punishment button. If their opponent was thought to be cheating, or even if the volunteer was getting frustrated at losing and wanted to even up the odds, the punishment button would administer an electric shock for as long as it was pressed. The intensity of the shock could be decided by the volunteer. In order to give the volunteers some idea of just how much punishment they would be meting out, Neil gave them all a series of shocks before the game began, increasing the level until the volunteers asked her to stop.
All was not as it seemed, however. The opponent in the game was nothing more than a simple script on a computer that would let the volunteer win a certain percentage of “gunfights.” The punishment button merely recorded the intensity level and how soon, how often, and how long the volunteer pressed it. Of course, the real experiment had begun long before the game started. With those initial shocks, Neil was covertly collecting data to see how much pain each volunteer could tolerate.
What she wanted to know was whether there is a correlation between a person’s pain threshold and how soon, how hard, and how often they punish their opponents. The results are indisputable: The more pain a volunteer was able to take before the trial, the more likely they were to shock sooner, more often, at higher voltage and even to lean on the button for longer than their less pain-tolerant fellows.
Why should that be the case? Do the less pain-tolerant volunteers have greater empathy for their “victim,” or is there something about the most aggressive players’ brains that allows them to suck up more discomfort? Neil’s experiment doesn’t look at this directly, but by comparing the results she got with the results that Claire Allsop and Richard Stephens uncovered, we can build some hypotheses.
We know that our level of aggression at any given moment is a combination of the aggressive elements of our personality (known as trait aggression) and our reaction to present circumstances (state aggression). Neil’s experiment seems to suggest that individuals with high trait aggression are better at withstanding pain, but the more aggressive volunteers might also have been having very bad days: The experiment doesn’t disentangle state and trait aggression explicitly. What’s so great about the Allsop and Stephens study is that it shows how easily we can all manipulate our emotions as a means of managing pain. Does that mean that swearing—or shoot-’em-ups—should be available on prescription?
Is All Swearing Equally Good at Killing Pain?
The good news is that swearing and shoot-’em-ups seem to work for everyone that Stephens has studied. Psychologists classify people into those who tend to express their anger a lot (“anger-out” people) and those who sit on it (“anger-in” people.) At first Stephens suspected that swearing might only work for people who were comfortable with the idea of swearing, or who did a lot of swearing in their everyday lives. He set up an experiment to test this, asking people to rate how likely they were to swear when they were angry, but the results surprised him: “Actually it didn’t make a difference; swearing worked equally well for both types of people. That’s the thing about science: Sometimes you get a negative result.”
The type of swearing might make a difference, though. What about “minced oaths”—those socially palatable versions of swearing we trot out when we might be overheard? Do these milder types of naughty language work as well when we want to get our aggression rates up? It seems not: Stronger swear words are stronger painkillers.
“My students tried to see if there was a dose response for swearing,” says Stephens. Two students ran a variant of the same experiment in two consecutive years that looked at the relationship between the strength of the language and the effect on pain. One year a student compared saying “fuck,” “bum,” or a neutral word. The following year another student did the same experiment but thought that “bum” was too mild and so decided to use “shit” instead. In both experiments, “fuck” gave the greatest relief, while “bum” and “shit” gave less, though more than using a neutral word. While the study was a classroom-based curiosity that hasn’t been published, it does sound like a promising avenue for further research, as well as making for an entertaining talk: “I love putting that slide up in presentations because I get to say the word ‘bum,’ which is quite fun.”
The result also suggests a converse experiment to me: Can we rate the severity of swear words by how much analgesic effect they have? Rather than asking people to say subjectively whether they think a swear word is mild, moderate, or severe, wire them up to heart rate monitors and have them stick their hands in ice water. Perhaps that’s something for the team at the Oxford English Dictionary to consider ahead of their next edition.