Swearing Makes It Hurt Less

New research shows that people actually feel less pain when they swear.

Posted May 10, 2020

Repeating the F word increases our ability to tolerate pain. Scientists have just proven the unique power of swearing by inventing fake obscenities and comparing them to the classics. When people said, “twizpipe” or “fouch” they tolerated far less pain than they did while saying f@$#.

Just a few years ago, scientists showed that using obscene language may actually be a sign of intelligence, implying a greater mastery of vocabulary. An aptly timed swear word is like adding salt to a bland dish: it brings out the flavor. But who knew profanity could actually be good for us?

Swearing induces stress-related analgesia.

About a decade ago, the first evidence surfaced that swearing, or “the use of taboo language conveying connotative information,” had pain-reducing effects. Past research has demonstrated that repeating a swear word helped people tolerate physical pain. It even helped decrease the social pain of being excluded.

Most of us have let the occasional curse word fly under stress—like the time I used taboo words to convey connotative information when I scraped the side of my car while backing out of the garage. My preschooler repeated the words perfectly from the back seat.

Photo by Noah Buscher on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Noah Buscher on Unsplash

The fact that we instinctively curse when we are in pain is probably because we know it helps. Scientists want to know why that is. They know swearing induces a stress-related analgesia, but how? Is it because swearing provokes our emotions enough to get a response in our autonomic nervous system, as some studies have shown? Or does swearing reduce our pain because it distracts us, another proven technique? Perhaps it distracts us because swearing is funny. Apparently the F word rated in the top 1 percent of funniest words.

To find out how swearing impacts pain, the researchers from Keele University in the United Kingdom worked with an agency to create two new “swear” words. Dr. Richard Stephens, who heads the affectionately named “Swear Lab,” told me, “I instantly liked 'twizpipe' as it had a lovely Roald Dahl quality to it.” Olly Robertson, Ph.D. Candidate and author on the paper said she preferred "fouch," “because it felt rather satisfying to say.” The word solid was used as a neutral word for comparison.

Researchers tested pain tolerance with an ice water challenge. 

Ninety-two study participants were asked to hold their hands in an ice bath. The researchers measured their pain threshold by timing how long it took them to begin to feel pain. Their pain tolerance was determined by how long they were able to keep their hands in the freezing water.

Each participant took the challenge four times, repeating one of the test words during each trial. The order of the words was randomized, to avoid any chance that the results were skewed.

Their conclusions? As you might guess, the F word worked best. When the study participants repeated it, they demonstrated increases in both their pain threshold and their pain tolerance. When they repeated "twizpipe" or "fouch," participants had emotional or humorous responses, but got no help at all with the pain.

While he did love "twizpipe," Stephens noted that, “it didn’t function like a proper swear word. In one sense it’s obvious, but our study demonstrates that there’s more to swearing than how words sound.”

The researchers were excited to produce the first study that showed swearing increased pain threshold. This was also the first study to rule out distraction as the mediator of pain relief while swearing. The team suggested that obscenity alleviates pain by causing emotional arousal. Further study is needed to confirm that idea.

“For me, the research was exciting because it exemplifies what we try to do in the Swear Lab,” said Robertson. “We want to explore — and understand — the magic of a seemingly mundane behavior: a behavior which actually holds a lot of social and psychological power.”

So the next time you decide to hold your hand in freezing water for as long as you can, remember to yell the F word at the top of your lungs. Just be sure to tell any nearby children that you were actually saying “fouch.”

This hilarious video shows the Swear Lab at work. 

This article was originally published at Forbes.com.