The Power of Profanity

swearingA minor scandal erupted in the UK last week when aspiring Tory prime minister David Cameron used some obscenities in a “jokey, blokey” radio interview.  Worse than the vulgarity, for which Cameron immediately apologized, some critics suspected a calculated ploy — that he got “sweary,” as one blogger put it, to boost his cool-factor with younger voters.

In my experience, getting sweary has the opposite effect — at least when the younger folks in question are my kids.  I remember one morning when my children and I were scrambling to get ourselves together, out the door, and into the car to drive to school and work, and I spilled my travel mug of coffee all over my white trousers.  I remember the morning not so much for the coffee stain on my clothes as for the horror on my daughter’s face when I unleashed a torrent of expletives.

I apologized.  But I think obscenities have gotten a bad rap as “bad” words.  They are powerful words, and when used judiciously — in the privacy of one’s own minivan, for example, when one’s white, wool trousers are covered with steaming coffee — can have a positive, constructive effect.

I suspect that anyone who has ever stubbed his or her toe will agree.  And here’s the proof:  a study in the most recent edition of NeuroReport magazine found that using swear-words can actually reduce a person’s perception of pain.

How did they reach this conclusion?

The researchers originally thought that swearing would make pain worse by focusing a person’s attention on the injury and its implications. To prove their hypothesis, they set up an experiment with 67 college students.

The students were asked to plunge their hands into frigid 41-degree Fahrenheit water for as long as they could stand the pain. Half were told to repeat their favorite curse word while their hands were submerged. The other half were asked to repeat a neutral word describing a table, such as solid or brown, while keeping their hands under water. Then the whole experiment was repeated with the two groups switching types of word. (Favorite swear words were, as you might guess, the ones starting with “F” and “S.” But since the subjects were British, the researchers also got an earful of “bollocks.”)

To the researchers’ surprise, the cursing group not only reported lower levels of pain, but also were able to keep their hands in the icy water longer. The men in the study, for example, were able to keep their hands in the water for an average of 190 seconds while swearing, but for only 140 seconds when uttering a neutral word.

The difference was even more pronounced in women. While men’s pain scores dropped by a point when they cussed, the women’s dropped by almost two full points.

So profanity has unusual power as a pain-reducing rhetorical device.

But should politicians use vulgar language in public interviews?  Heck, no.

For more on the science of swearing, click here.

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