Ladies and Gentlemen, You May Cuss and Swear

“Fuck!”

It feels good saying it, doesn’t it?

TIME magazine reported that a new study by British researchers revealed that saying the F word or any other commonly used expletive can work to reduce physical pain – and it seems that people may use curse words by instinct. Indeed, as any owner of a banged shin or stubbed toe knows, dancing the agony jig – and shouting its profane theme tune – are about as automatic as the response to a doctor’s reflex hammer.

To figure out why, psychologists at Britain’s Keele University asked 64 college students to stick their hands in a bucket of ice water and endure the pain for several minutes. One group was allowed to repeat a curse word of their choice continuously while their hands were in the water; another group was asked to repeat a non-expletive control word, such as that which might be used to describe a table. The result was that swearing not only allowed students to withstand the discomfort longer, but also reduced their perception of pain intensity. Curse words, the study found, help you cope.

“Swearing increases your pain tolerance,” says Richard Stephens, a psychologist and lead author of the study, which was published in the journal NeuroReport in mid July. Although the experiment’s initial hypothesis was inspired by anecdotal evidence from some pain researchers that swearing was actually a maladaptive behavior that served only to make things worse, Stephens’ findings showed exactly the opposite. “The No 1 priority is to make the pain go away. If swearing made the pain worse, that would be illogical,” Stephens says, adding that you hardly need a scientific study to bear out the theory.

That’s probably because humans are hardwired to swear cathartically, says Steven Pinker, a Harvard psychologist and author of The Stuff of Thought, an exploration of the psychology of language. Pinker distinguishes cathartic cursing from using profanity descriptively, idiomatically, abusively or for emphasis, and points to similar behavior in animals that suggests its evolutionary roots. If you step on a dog or cat’s tail, it will let out a sharp yelp of pain, for example. “Swearing probably comes from a very primitive reflex that evolved in animals,” Pinker says. “In humans, our vocal tract has been hijacked by our language skills,” so instead of barking out a random sound, “we articulate our yelp with a word colored with negative emotion.”

But before you go yelling four-letter words at every turn, consider this: in Stephens’ study, swearing reduced the perception of pain more strongly in women than in men. That may be because in daily life “men swear more than women,” says Pinker, which could have the unfortunate side effect of dulling the natural painkiller. “For women I suspect that swearing retains more of an emotional punch because it has not been overused,” he says.

“That’s one of the reasons that I think people should not overuse profanity in their speech and writing,” says Pinker. “That’s not because I’m a prude, but because it blunts swear words of their power when you do need them. You should save them for just the right occasions.”

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