Swearing is good for you. Well, kind of. A growing body of research suggests that, under the right circumstances, simply saying taboo words out loud seems to make people feel less pain – but not just any swear words will suffice, new findings reveal.
Exactly how and why the act of swearing manages to make things seem less painful remains largely hypothetical, and it's worth noting that much of the hypothesising to date in this area has been led by a single researcher, British psychologist Richard Stephens from Keele University.
Nonetheless, what Stephens has uncovered is certainly very interesting. A little over a decade ago, he and his team found that if people immersed their hand in ice water, the simple act of swearing during the experiment enabled participants to perceive decreased pain and tolerate increased pain.
Related follow-ups found that the benefits of this pain-lessening (hypoalgesic) effect brought about by swearing are constrained by how often you swear ordinarily, with frequent swearers receiving a lesser increase in pain tolerance than those who don't tend to swear as much.
The hypoalgesic phenomenon seems to transcend language barriers, and appears to be related to other oddities that alter people's perception and abilities; swearing seems to make people stronger too, and taboo gestures, in place of verbal swearing, can also have a positive effect when people are in pain.
Now, in his latest expert contribution to this weird tangent of psychological research, Stephens and his colleague Olly Robertson have explored what happens if we swap around the designated swear words during the ice water experiment.
Specifically, what happens if we use made-up swear words in a test like this: can a word be plucked out of thin air to represent a taboo or humorous idea, and still have a measurable effect on pain reduction in people's minds?
In the new experiment, 92 participants immersed their hand in a frigid tub of water kept at an icy constant of 3–5°C until it was no longer bearable.
During this uncomfortable ordeal, participants had their heart rate monitored, and would randomly repeat one of four words every three seconds, to see what effect that might have, both on their pain perception and how long they could ultimately endure keeping their hand immersed in the water.
The four words to be spoken included a conventional swear word ('f*ck'), a neutral word (a term the participants themselves nominated to describe a table, eg. 'solid'), and two made-up swear words designed specifically for the experiment.
One of these made-up terms was 'fouch' (intended to invoke an emotional response from the participant), and the other was 'twizpipe' (intended to invoke a humorous response from the participant).
While the new swear words may have been designed to partially resemble the attention-modulating impacts of actual swear words, they didn't seem to have much effect in the experiment, at least in terms of influencing pain perception.
The results backed up Stephens' previous research, showing that conventional swearing appears to reduce the perception of pain. In this case, saying 'f*ck' was linked with a 32 percent increase in pain threshold and a 33 percent increase in pain tolerance.
In contrast, the made-up swear words had no beneficial effects for pain threshold and tolerance, which the researchers say is not altogether unsurprising.
"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."
This could mean that the made-up swear words, while designed to superficially resemble swear words in either emotional or humorous ways, cannot reduce the perception of pain, because the "surface properties of swear words (such as how they sound) do not explain the hypoalgesic effects of swearing".
Future studies might help us understand what's going on more. Until such time, the results serve as a timely reminder of the best thing to say when something really, really hurts.
The findings are reported in Frontiers in Psychology.