Swear Your Pain Awayby Sara Adaes, PhD | October 6, 2014
Who wouldn’t swear after slamming a finger in a door (not to mention giving birth without anesthesia)? I certainly would. A lot. Swearing is a very common instinctive reaction to pain but it’s not a very common research topic, with most studies focusing on the psychology of swearing.
Although there is very little research on the effect of swearing on pain, there are a couple of studies worth mentioning. There are two theories for why people swear in response to pain. The ‘disinhibition’ theory states that the stress of pain leads to social disinhibition and reduced self-control that allows swearing. The other theory affirms that swearing represents ‘pain catastrophizing’ behavior – the belief that something is worse than it really is – leading to an increased perception of pain.
In line with the second theory, a study was designed to test the hypothesis that swearing could be a maladaptive response to pain, i.e. a behavior that inhibits the ability to adjust to a certain situation, and that, therefore, it should decrease pain tolerance and increase pain perception.
To assess their pain responses, participants were asked to submerge one hand in ice-cold water until it became painful. The time they took to withdraw their hand (the latency) was measured and they were asked to rate their pain intensity. This was performed in two situations: while swearing and while saying neutral words.
The authors found that the withdrawal latencies were longer in the swearing condition and also in males relative to females. They also observed that their pain rating was reduced in the swearing condition, to a greater extent in females. Thus, the opposite of what the authors had hypothesized occurred: swearing led to an increased pain tolerance and a decreased pain perception. They concluded that instead of being a maladaptive response, swearing actually has a pain reducing (hypoalgesic) effect, and that it’s higher in women.
Interestingly, it was also observed that the pain reducing effect in females was independent of the tendency to catastrophize. Men, on the other hand, lost the effect of swearing as their tendency to catastrophize increased. The reason for such sex differences is unclear, but it can be attributed to men swearing more often than women (statistically), with the power of catastrophizing more easily overcoming the effect of swearing.
These findings actually led to another study evaluating whether the habit of swearing could diminish the hypoalgesic effect of swearing. The same procedures as the previous study were used, but here, the daily swearing frequency was taken into account. It was observed that the more often the participants swore in their daily life, the less pain reducing effect was obtained from swearing. This is basically attributable to habituation: people who swear more often have a smaller emotional response to swearing, leading to a decreased effect of swearing in pain.
The reason swearing has such an effect on pain remains to be elucidated. The authors hypothesize that swearing may induce a kind of alarm reaction to threat: people feel more aggressive which sets off the ‘fight or flight’ response that, in turn, has a pain reducing effect.
Remember to choose your words wisely.
Bowers JS, & Pleydell-Pearce CW (2011). Swearing, euphemisms, and linguistic relativity. PloS one, 6 (7) PMID: 21799832
Stephens R, Atkins J, & Kingston A (2009). Swearing as a response to pain. Neuroreport, 20 (12), 1056-60 PMID: 19590391
Stephens R, & Umland C (2011). Swearing as a response to pain-effect of daily swearing frequency. The journal of pain : official journal of the American Pain Society, 12 (12), 1274-81 PMID: 22078790
Stephens R (2013). Swearing – the language of life and death. The Psychologist, 26(9):650-653
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