As It Happens6:30Swearing feels good — and research suggests it’s good for you, too
Taking notes while someone holds their hand in freezing cold water and hurls profanities may seem like an odd way to spend an afternoon, but for Richard Stephens, it’s just another day at the office.
Stephens and his colleagues study the psychological effects of swearing. And according to their recent review of available research on the topic, swearing helps people tolerate pain, ease stress, build and maintain interpersonal connections, and in some cases, be more persuasive.
“I think [these studies are] really kind of putting a scientific stamp on what most people know anyway,” Stephens, a psychologist and lecturer at Keele University in England, told As It Happens host Nil Köksal.
“People know if they hurt themselves, it’s a good idea to swear because it seems to help. People know it helps express frustration.”
Stephens and his colleagues reviewed 100 academic papers from different disciplines about the consequences of cussing, including their own research. Their findings were published in the journal Lingua.
Cursing to make friends and influence people
Several studies over the years have highlighted the social benefits of swearing. They found it can build a sense of camaraderie and solidarity within a group, especially if that group faces adversity or outside opposition.
Other studies have suggested that swearing can help create a sense of trust and intimacy among co-workers, sports teams and friend groups.
It’s even effective at forging “parasocial” relationships — one-sided bonds where a person feels close to someone they don’t actually know, usually a celebrity or an influencer — according to a 2017 analysis of controversial YouTuber PewDiePie.
Stephens says swearing’s social power stems from the fact that it’s frowned upon in many professional and social settings. Cursing, therefore, can feel very intimate and authentic.
“The idea is that if someone is speaking and they’re swearing, that they’re speaking in an unfiltered way,” he said. “They’re not managing how they look or sound to other people. And so, you know, theoretically, that should make you think, well, they’re being honest.”
In some cases, Stephens said, this even helps people to be more persuasive — with some caveats.
“It does seem to depend on what your initial beliefs are, because if you strongly disagree with someone and they start swearing, that gives you a reason to carry on strongly disagreeing. It gives you a reason to dislike them,” he said. “So it is a bit nuanced, that one.”
The healing power of a potty mouth
But it’s not all social. Some of swearing’s power is deeply personal. For example, Stephens says it’s a tremendous tool for pain management.
This is Stephens’ area of expertise. He and his colleagues have published several studies about swearing and pain.
Most recently, their 2020 study found people can hold their hand in freezing cold water longer if they’re repeating a swear word. Repeating a neutral word didn’t have the same effect.
“So swearing seems to help people cope with pain,” he said.
In that study, participants used a swear word of their own choice, Stephens said, because “swearing is quite a personal thing.”
That might explain why several studies have found that swearing has a bigger emotional impact when you do it in your first language.
“When people swear in a second or third language, it just doesn’t seem to have the same power or emotional impact, whatever you want to call it, as swearing in the mother tongue,” Stephens said.
Excessive expletives exempted
Stephens says he has some as-yet unpublished research to suggest that the intensity of the swear word matters too. People are better able to tolerate pain while dropping F-bombs, he says, than something less vulgar, like “bum.”
“It does seem to be that the stronger the swear word, the more effect it has,” he said.
But he has a warning for those known to swear like a sailor: Swearing’s power has diminishing returns.
“We found that the people who swear the most in everyday life got the least benefit from swearing,” he said. “So, you know, don’t overdo it.”