science can be fun: swearing as a response to pain

I got an e-mail yesterday from a biology teacher (thanks, Ayelet!) with three pdfs & the subject line ‘science can be fun after all!’. And the three attached papers definitely showed that 🙂 ‘Excellent blog material,’ I thought to myself…

First up: Swearing as a response to pain, by Richard Stephens, John Atkins & Andrew Kingston (2009). And who hasn’t said a bad word on occasion? I know the air was blue when I caught the tips of three fingers in the garage door! (Drove to work with my fingers enclosed in a packet of frozen peas – thank goodness for automatic transmission. Boy, that pea packet earned me some strange looks when I got to the office. But I didn’t lose the fingernails, & the purply-black bits have almost grown out.)

These authors wanted to know whether people swear simply because Bad Things have happened, or whether expressing one’s feelings via an expletive or two might actually have an effect on how we perceive pain. We carried out an experiment to test the as yet unvalidated hypothesis that swearing, being a maladaptive response to pain, would decrease pain tolerance and increase pain perception compared with not swearing.  You can’t go round hitting your experimental subjects hard enough to cause them pain, so the 67 participants (all university students) in this experiment were instead asked to place one hand in ice-cold (5oC) water for 5 minutes (or as long as they could stand it). Each person was also asked to provide a list of five words you might use after hitting yourself on the thumb with a hammer, & to use the first swear word on that list to express the pain they experienced during that frigid immersion. The control was to use one of five words they’d given to describe a table 🙂

How to get a standard starting point in a trial like this? By having each subject hold their hand in room-temperature water for 3 minutes before each ‘cold’ trial. The researchers measured ‘before’ & ‘after’ heart rates & asked their subjects to complete several questionnaires that were designed to measure their fear of pain, their anxiety state, their tendency to think negative thoughts in a pain-inducing situation and – after the painful interval – their perceptions of how bad the pain actually was.

And the results? The raw data indciate that – for both males & females- swearing extended the length of time that an individual could keep their hand in icy water. It also decreased their perception of just how bad the pain was, and induced a marked increase from resting heart rate, compared to the non-swearing condition. The researchers commented, we interpret these data as indicating that swearing, rather than being a maladaptive pain response, actually produces a hypoalgesic (pain lessening) effect.  They also noted that men, but not women, who were prone to the negative thoughts thing were less likely to have their pain perceptions reduced by swearing… And fear of pain was a good indicator of the level of perceived pain in the control (‘table’ words) arm of the trial – but not in the swearing arm.

So this is  an intriguing piece of work (and will doubtless be seized upon by some of you as scientific justification for letting rip with the occasional swear word). However, I’m not all that sure about the team’s suggestion that swearing works as an analgesic in painful situations because it generates a fight or flight response – being in a stressful situation is going to do that for you anyway. One way to investigate that one would be to take ‘before’ & ‘after’ blood samples & look for changes in the level of stress hormones – if the swearers had higher levels of these hormones compared to the non-swearers, that would support the ‘flight/fight’ hypothesis. And I do wonder if having to concentrate on using the ‘right’ Naughty Word at a steady pace & volume would have some effect in taking your mind off the pain? Although that criticism probably isn’t fair, given that someone using a ‘table’ word would be concentrating just as hard (& probably wishing they could swear, as well!). What about swearing in non-stress situations (what I guess you could call ‘conversational’ swearing)?

Like all good research, this one generates more questions than it answers.

Stephens, Atkins & Kingston (2009) Swearing as a response to pain. NeuroReport 20: 1056-1060  

One thought on “science can be fun: swearing as a response to pain”

  • In my own, very non-scientific ‘experiment’ I’m pretty sure that swearing/roaring increased my tolerance of the pain of labour contractions… It was satisfying anyway!

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