Back in March, I reported on a study by Timothy Jay describing how and why humans swear. As a researcher studying swearing for 35 years, Jay had some interesting insights. Now add one more reason to the list — we swear not merely as a reaction to pain, but because it can actually reduce our sense of pain.
The new finding comes from research that tested the hypothesis with a bunch (67) of college students and some ice cold water. Students were given a choice when they plunged their warm hands into the freezing water — chant a neutral word, or repeat a swear word instead.
Those students who chose to swear reported less subjective pain than the neutral word chanters, and could endure the icy cold water with their hands for about 40 seconds longer on average.
Some researcher speculate into the reasons why swearing might work to lesson pain. Swearing appears to come from structures deep within the brain, like the amygdala which is home to the fight or flight response. When faced with something that threatens us, humans — like animals — have a choice: fight it or run away from it. In either case, when this response is triggered, our heart rate climbs, preparing our body for the action it needs to take. It also appears that our sensitivity to pain during this response is also lessened.
It could also be the case that the students’ responses were an example of psychological conditioning from years of normal child development. When you’re a child and you hurt yourself, your immediate reaction is to cry to express your pain. This could bring about some sort of emotional relief (through a consoling parent, for instance), but it also often results in no particular emotional or physical relief from the pain. And yet, somehow it seems to make us feel better.
As we age and mature however, we learn to express our pain in other ways — through swearing, for instance. After we cry or swear, we expect to feel better, so we do.
The pain response didn’t work for the male college students who had a tendency to catastrophize their pain, however. For instance, men who think it will be the most painful experience ever to dunk their hand into an icy cold bucket of water will find little relief from swearing.
Swear words lose their effect, however, if we use them too often or they no longer carry any particularly emotionality to them. That’s why a swear word used by someone who swears all the time almost seems like casual conversation to them — because it is. Someone who rarely uses the same word, however, could quickly become offended by the very same word.
In either case, this adds another explanation as to why people swear — because it brings them a temporary sense of pain relief.
And it’s cheaper than aspirin.
Stephens, R., Atkins, J., Kingston, A. (2009). Swearing as a response to pain. NeuroReport. 20(12):1056-1060. DOI: 10.1097/WNR.0b013e32832e64b1