As it happens6:30 amSwearing feels good – and research suggests it’s good for you too
Taking notes while someone holds their hand in icy water and swears may seem like an odd way to spend an afternoon, but to 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 subject, swearing helps people endure pain, relieve stress, build and maintain interpersonal connections, and in some cases be more persuasive.
“I think [these studies are] kind of put a scientific stamp on what most people already know,” Stephens, a psychologist and lecturer at Keele University in England, told me. As it happens host Nil Koksal.
“People know that when they hurt themselves, it’s a good idea to swear because it seems to help. People know it helps to express frustration.”
Stephens and his colleagues reviewed 100 academic papers from various disciplines on the consequences of name-calling, including their own research. Their findings were published in the journal Lingua.
Curses to make friends and influence people
Several studies over the years have emphasized the social benefits of swearing. They found that it can build a sense of camaraderie and solidarity within a group, especially when that group faces adversity or opposition from outside.
Other studies have suggested that swearing can help create a sense of trust and intimacy in co-workers, sports teams, and groups of friends.
It’s even effective at forging “parasocial” relationships — one-sided bonds where a person feels close to someone they don’t really know, usually a celebrity or influencer — according to a 2017 analysis by controversial YouTuber PewDiePie.
Stephens says the social power of swearing comes from the fact that it is frowned upon in many professional and social settings. Swearing can therefore feel very intimate and authentic.
“The idea is that if someone speaks and they swear, they speak in an unfiltered way,” he said. “They don’t manage how they look or sound to other people. And so, you know, theoretically that should make you think, well, they’re honest.”
In some cases, Stephens said, this actually helps people be more persuasive — with some caveats.
“It seems 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 strongly disagree. It gives you a reason not to like them.” find,” he said. “So it’s a bit nuanced, that one.”
The healing power of a potty mouth
But it’s not all social. Part of the power of swearing is deeply personal. Stephens, for example, says it’s a great pain management tool.
This is Stephens’ area of expertise. He and his colleagues have published several studies on swearing and pain.
Recently, their 2020 study found that people can hold their hand in icy water longer if they repeat a swear word. Repeating a neutral word did not have the same effect.
“So swearing seems to help people cope with pain,” he said.
In that study, the participants used a swear word of their own choosing, Stephens said, because “swearing is kind of personal.”
That could explain why several studies have shown that swearing has a greater emotional impact if 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 native language,” Stephens said.
Excessive expletives exempt
Stephens says he has unpublished research that suggests the intensity of the swear word matters, too. People can tolerate pain better when they drop F-bombs, he says, than something less vulgar, like “wanderer.”
“It seems 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: The power of curses has diminishing returns.
“We found that the people who swear the most in everyday life benefit the least from swearing,” he said. “So, you know, don’t overdo it.”