You grip the nail tightly in one hand, a hammer ready to swing in the other. Lift it up – and bam! You’ve just hit own thumb and are now turning the air blue. Swearing is a common reaction to pain, and a new study published in the journal NeuroReport suggests it can actually help reduce the effect.
Richard Stephens, John Atkins and Andrew Kingston of Keele University investigated the science of swearing by asking 67 volunteers to submerge their hand in a bowl of ice-cold water for a maximum of five minutes. The volunteers had to repeat the swear word of their choice until they couldn’t stand the pain. As a control, they were also asked to do the same procedure whilst repeating a word used “to describe a table”.
One person had to be removed from the study because they couldn’t think of a swear word, but the rest managed just fine. The results showed that on average, men could suffer the pain for around 45 seconds longer when swearing, whilst women managed an additional 37 seconds.
Both sexes also demonstrated a reduction on the Perceived Pain Scale, which measures how much people feel pain. This is in contrast to the scientists’ initial hypothesis that swearing would actually increase feelings of pain.
It isn’t clear why swearing has this effect, though in the paper the researchers suggest swearing could induce a fight-or-flight response and nullifies the link between fear of pain and the perception of pain. All participants registered an increase in heart rate whilst swearing, which supports this theory.
As an aside, the research has unsurprisingly been picked up by various media outlets including the BBC and Daily Mail. Both reports make reference to Rohan Byrt of the Casual Swearing Appreciation Society. Intrigued as to the nature of such an austere society, I was puzzled when a Google search showed no obvious results.
It seems that the “society” is actually nothing more then a Facebook group, and Mr Byrt is the self-appointed “Sir Saysfuckalot”. If this shoddy journalism pains you, I suggest you make use of the four-letter word of your choice.
Stephens, R., Atkins, J., & Kingston, A. (2009). Swearing as a response to pain NeuroReport, 20 (12), 1056-1060 DOI: 10.1097/WNR.0b013e32832e64b1