Home > Miscellaneous > Why Cursing Can Be A Good Thing

Why Cursing Can Be A Good Thing

OK America, I confess: Sometimes I can be a little bit of a potty mouth. (Mom, maybe this is not a great blog for you to read.) Yes, I know those dirty little words are unbecoming to some and I really should watch my language (and I really do try!) but sometimes, when I’m walking through my condo and I stub my baby pinky toe on a table leg and the pain takes my breath away and brings tears to my eyes and makes me freeze with my foot mid-air in ridiculous pain….well, I can’t be held accountable for anything four-lettered I may say. (D**n it!)

Thankfully, Dr. Richard Stephens and his team at Keele University in the United Kingdom just published a study that says swearing actually has a pain-lessening effect. (See Mom? It’s healthy!) When we swear, we increase our threshold for pain, meaning we can bear it longer and don’t feel it as much. Stephens is not sure why this happens, only that for some reason, “swearing appears to increase our pain tolerance.”

Like those moments when I stub my toe, Stephens came up with the idea to study this after he accidentally whacked his finger with a hammer. “I swore a bit and then around the same time, our daughter was born. My wife swore throughout her labor…and the midwife said don’t worry about it, we hear that language all the time.” Not surprising, says clinical psychologist Paula Bloom. “From my own experience of giving birth without drugs to a 9 pound, 11 ounce child, I can imagine I had quite the little truck driver vocabulary going on.”

For the study, Stephens asked the participants to submerge one hand in nearly freezing water for as long as they could while repeating a curse word. Later the participants submerged the same hand again, this time repeating a word they would use to describe a table. When people were cursing, they kept their hand in the water for 40 more seconds than they could otherwise. So what were the words that made that possible? Turns out they were different for everyone. “We decided at the outset that people would give us their own swear words,” Stephens said. “Swearing is quite personal and what one person finds extremely offensive, someone else may not find offensive at all.” That being said, the usual suspects topped the list: s**t, the F word and British slang – bollocks!

All joking aside, many people find swearing to be incredibly distasteful, regardless of when or why it happens. Bloom thinks this study may change that. “This removes the morality piece about language. We’re so quick to judge and sometimes our judgment interferes with science. We’re walking around thinking [swearing] is a bad thing…it’s not really.” Stephens agrees. “Swearing has gotten very bad publicity– it’s a negatively construed thing. But the positive aspect of it is swearing self-regulates our emotions. It can have a beneficial effect.”


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  1. 07/22/2009 at 6:23 am

    Wow. This is awesome. I'm going to show my mom this article. Haha.

  2. 07/23/2009 at 12:20 am

    Indeed. It's for all the people who think swearing has any bearing on moral character or has anything intrinsically negative about it. I mean, swearing really does make you feel better. And while it's nice to know studies have confirmed this, I think our own experience was probably enough to convince us that such was true.

  3. 07/24/2009 at 7:31 am

    I have trouble seeing how the fact that swearing increases the amount of pain you can withstand and the notion that swearing is morally permissible interact. What does utility have to do with morality? I'm not opposed to swearing in the slightest, i just don't think this experiment has anything to do with morality.
    Irrespective of that, bollocks is a great word 🙂

  4. 07/25/2009 at 2:47 am

    Although I'm not sure utility is completely irrelevant to moral
    considerations, I agree that the article/experiment is not taking up
    the moral question. One might argue, for instance, that the pain relief
    that results from swearing is something to be taken into consideration
    when weighing the positive and negative consequences of partaking in
    such verbal acts and, as such, is or might be relevant to the
    permissibility of those acts.And I would love to use "bollocks" but I just don't get the pain relief that I'm looking for. 😉

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