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Neuropsych

Why does swearing make us stronger?

Profanity offers surprising benefits. But why?
swearing
Credit: Vadim / Adobe Stock
Key Takeaways
  • Repeating a swear word has been shown to dull painful sensations, as well as boost physical strength.
  • Scientists still don't know the exact reason for this curious effect, but they theorize that profanity serves as a distraction, allowing us to ignore pain or push past physiological barriers.
  • If you want to see if swearing helps in your own physical exploits, try using the "S-word" or "F-word," as these produced the best results in experiments.

Swearing: Though almost all of our parents probably told us not to use profane language, the simple fact is that most of us do (and so do our parents).

Taboo words lace the English language like little mischievous bombs — best avoided. But a growing collection of research shows that foul language can offer some surprising benefits. Socially, swearing has been shown to increase a speaker’s effectiveness and persuasiveness. Profanity can also make people seem more genuine and trustworthy.

Cursing calisthenics

Even more intriguing, foul language can also impart physical benefits. Over numerous studies, Richard Stephens, a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Keele University, demonstrated that swearing dulls the perception of physical pain and boosts strength.

In his experiments, which have been replicated numerous times, Keele asked subjects to immerse their hands in ice-cold water for as long as possible while repeating either a choice swear word, a neutral word, or a made-up curse word. In instances where participants used real swear words, they were able to keep their hands immersed for roughly 33% longer and reported that it took longer for them to feel any pain at all. Interestingly, made-up swear words failed to produce an analgesic effect.

Keele has also had subjects cycle as hard as they can, hold a push-up position to exhaustion, or squeeze a hand dynamometer as forcefully as possible to measure grip strength, again while repeating a swear word or a neutral word in a calm voice. Cursing consistently boosted physical performance in all of these challenges by between 5% and 10%.

So why does profanity augment physical ability? The obvious explanation, which Stephens initially explored, is that using foul language excites us, perhaps due to its culturally taboo nature. Alas, he did not see any measurable cardiovascular or nervous system arousal when subjects were swearing, with no clear changes in heart rate, skin conductance, or blood pressure.

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Instead, the answer might be psychological.

“It may be that we are distracting ourselves when we swear, thereby decreasing our pain perception,” Stephens wrote in a recent opinion article along with Samford University Associate Professor Nick Washmuth. “It is possible that swearing-induced distraction produced the improved performance during the [cycling] and grip tasks, making it more tolerable to pedal hard and produce force while gripping.”

Such distraction might be mediated through a disinhibiting effect. Swearing is generally discouraged, so doing it can be psychologically liberating, subconsciously allowing us to push past ingrained physiological barriers. After all, any athlete knows that physical fatigue exists as much in the brain as in the body.

Swearing your way to success

Interested in trying to use profanity to your advantage in your own physical exploits? Stephens recently offered some tips.

“It is advised to use a swear word that you would use in response to banging your head accidentally. If no clear swear words come to mind, the S-word and F-word are the two most common swear words and were used by many of the subjects in the research showing the positive effects of swearing,” he wrote with Washmuth.

The duo even suggested that physical therapists could recommend swearing to their patients as they push through physical and mental barriers on the road to recovering from injury — though they cautioned that this unconventional technique should only be attempted in situations where clinician and client have a strong relationship. Swearing, after all, is often considered rude.


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