As psychologist Richard Stephens listened to his wife let loose with some unsavory language during the throes of labor, inspiration took hold. So he and some colleagues at Keele University in England conducted an experiment to test whether uttering emotion-laden words can change the amount of pain people feel. Turns out that cussing a blue streak might be a good thing.
Study participants were asked to write down five words—to allow for varying foulness thresholds—that they might say after hitting their thumb with a hammer. “A word someone might find shocking and scandalous is a word someone else might use every day,” Stephens says. They were also asked to come up with words to describe a table.
The 67 undergraduate students each then immersed a hand in frigid water for as long as they could bear, while either swearing or repeating an innocuous word. When people had a swear word for their mantra (popular choices: the s-word, the f-word, and two b-words), they were able to keep a hand in the cold water about 40 seconds longer.
The people who swore also reported less pain after the fact. Swearing increased heart rate in participants, and researchers theorized that the increase might signal the beginning of a fight-or-flight response, which allows the body to tolerate or ignore pain. They published their results in the journal NeuroReport (Aug. 5, 2009).
The study gets past whether swearing should be frowned upon, says Timothy Jay, a psychologist at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. “When you try to describe swearing in moral terms—is it good or bad—it keeps you from getting at the deeper evolutionary links,” he says. “Where did this come from? Why do we do it?”