There have been a surprising number of studies in recent years examining the effects of swearing, specifically whether it can help relieve pain—either physical or psychological (as in the case of traumatic memories or events). According to the latest such study, published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, constantly repeating the F-word—as one might do if one hit one’s thumb with a hammer—can increase one’s pain threshold.
The technical term is the “hypoalgesic effect of swearing,” best illustrated by a 2009 study in NeuroReport by researchers at Keele University in the UK. The work was awarded the 2010 Ig Nobel Peace Prize, “for confirming the widely held belief that swearing relieves pain.” Co-author Richard Stephens, a psychologist at Keele, became interested in studying the topic after noting his wife’s “unsavory language” while giving birth, and wondered if profanity really could help alleviate pain. “Swearing is such a common response to pain. There has to be an underlying reason why we do it,” Stephens told Scientific American at the time.
For that 2009 study, Stephens and his colleagues asked 67 study participants (college students) to immerse their hands in a bucket of ice water. They were then instructed to either swear repeatedly using the profanity of their choice, or chant a neutral word. Lo and behold, the participants said they experienced less pain when they swore, and were also able to leave their hands in the bucket about 40 seconds longer than when they weren’t swearing. It’s been suggested (by Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, among others) that it is a primitive reflex that serves as a form of catharsis.
“We have quite good data on the mechanism being that swearing brings out an emotional response in the speaker, which activates the autonomic nerves system, or acute structure response,” Stephens told Ars. “It’s linked to flight or fight.” In other words, swearing in response to pain can activate the amygdala, which can trigger that flight-or-fight response, producing a surge of adrenalin.
The team followed up with a 2011 study showing that the pain relief effect works best for subjects who typically don’t swear that often, perhaps because they attach a higher emotional value to swears. They also found that subjects’ heart rates increased when they swore. “So we think the mechanism is stress-induced,” said Stephens. “It’s the emotional content of the swearing that people are accessing when they swear in pain.”
But it might not be the only underlying mechanism. Other researchers have pointed out that profanity might be distracting, thereby taking one’s mind off the pain, rather than serving as an actual analgesic. Stephens et al. set out to explore the question further in their latest study. They were actually approached by an Australian company called Nurofen that sells ibuprofen products for pain relief. The company was interested in sponsoring a scientific study on pain relief and swearing (having no doubt seen the team’s prior findings).
Fouch or twizpipe?
The company’s ad agency generated 60 candidate words they felt might be possible fake swears, and Stephens and a panel of language experts took over from there, winnowing that list down to two: “fouch” and “twizpipe.” The first was chosen because it had “emotional impact,” per Stephens, while the latter was chosen because “it had the potential to be distracting through humor.” The team then followed the same methodology as with their 2009 study, recruiting college students to place their hands in buckets of ice water and then repeating one of the candidate words: the F-word, fouch, twizpipe, and a neutral word (an adjective describing a table) as a control condition. As before, they also monitored heart rates.
The result: “Only the traditional swear word (the F-word) had any effect on pain outcomes,” said Stephens. They also measured the subjects’ pain threshold, asking them to indicate when the ice water began to feel painful. Those who chanted the F-word waited longer before indicating they felt pain—in other words, the swearing increased their threshold for pain.
“Only the traditional swear word (the F-word) had any effect on pain outcomes.”
Chanting “fouch” or “twizpipe” had no effect on either measure. Follow-up studies will likely focus on conventional swearing, since “there’s no suggestion from these data that distraction, or how the word sounds, is a reason why swearing helps people cope with pain,” said Stephens. “It seems like it’s the meaning of the word—probably the way we learn the word growing up, and the associations between these words and stress, or emotion. That’s probably what underlies the power of swearing.”
One intriguing finding is that saying the F-word did not have any effect on heart rate this time, unlike the group’s prior studies, which is also at odds with studies from other labs that also showed an autonomic nervous system response in heart rates. “But that’s science,” said Stephens. “The world’s a messy place, and not everything goes according to plan all the time.”
Stephens and his colleagues are already moving ahead with new experiments, this time shifting away from the autonomic arousal explanation for the effect to focus more on cognitive explanations—specifically looking at swearing as a possible form of disinhibition. “Usually disinhibition is a bad thing, where someone is unable to function in society because they’re disinhibited and act inappropriately,” he said.
However, there are a handful of scientific papers investigating whether disinhibition could improve performance—particularly a 2014 paper that found the tennis players who grunted while serving the ball produced faster serves than those who didn’t grunt. Stephens et al.’s current research will build on that, as well as their own 2018 paper showing that swearing can improve strength. “I think there may be a cognitive explanation that swearing is able to produce disinhibition,” he said. “And in some situations, disinhibition lets you just go for it that little bit more and not hold back.”