If you have hit your thumb with a hammer, you know that swearing seems to be an unavoidable response. Did you know that swearing help us withstand pain? Research has proven that people can keep their hands submerged in ice water 50% longer when they swear – compared to no such benefit when they just used a common word. The subjects actually reported that the water didn’t feel as cold when they were swearing. And it didn’t matter if the subjects were people who admitted that they swear a lot – or were individuals that said they were unlikely to swear. When you swear, your heart rate accelerates, your palms become sweaty and your emotional state gets more intense. Researchers are not sure why this helps us deal with pain, but it seems that swearing heightens our confidence, increases our aggression and makes us feel more resilient.
Pain used to be thought of as a purely biological phenomenon, but actually pain is very much psychological. The same level of injury will hurt more or less in different circumstances. For example, that if male volunteers are asked to rate how painful a stimulus is, most of them will say it hurts less if the person collecting the data is a woman. Pain isn’t a simple relationship between the intensity of a stimulus and the severity of your response. Circumstances, your personality, your mood, even the experience of previous pain all affect the way we experience a physical hurt.
Swearing also increases stamina. In a test of squeezing a measuring device, subjects that swore during the task were able to exert more force for a longer time.
And swearing can also help relieve social pain. Swearing after being excluded from a group reduced the hurt of rejection. It is known that taking pain relievers also eases the discomfort of social situations gone wrong – but so does swearing.
Swearing among a social group can be a form of bonding. When we swear out of frustration among the members of a new social group, it is a good measure of how well we feel accepted. We tend to swear among those we trust – and the act of swearing can create trust within the group.
The value of swearing lies in the shock value of the curse words. The type of swearing might make a difference, though. What about “minced oaths”—those socially palatable versions of swearing we trot out when we might be overheard? Do these milder types of naughty language work as well when we want to get our aggression rates up? It seems not: Stronger swear words are stronger painkillers.
So a word to the wise to go lightly – a little bit goes a long way. But it doe help explain why curse words appear in every language – and why it is such a universal practice across time and place.