Do You Curse All the Time? A Study Says You Might Be More Authentic

Friday, March 9, 2018
Fatou Darboe

There are differing attitudes on swearing and its social impact has changed quite dramatically over the last eight or so decades.

You may be familiar with Clark Gable’s utterance of “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn” from the 1939 film, Gone with the Wind. That utterance landed producers a hefty (in those days) $5,000 fine.

TV shows and movies today are filled with profanities and we are much more tolerant of them. But that tolerance doesn’t mean we still don’t consider potty mouths to be crass and vulgar.

Swearing is still not acceptable in most societies and cultures, particularly in public.

Image credit: The Huffington Post

Ever since we were kids, we were told not to swear and curse, especially in public. That advice is well intentioned in accordance to social norms and decorum, but science disagrees with it. 

A recent study found that people who swear are more trustworthy and honest. In fact, various studies have revealed that a little cursing could actually be food for the soul and indicate authenticity.

Dishonesty and profanity are both grouped as deviant qualities and behaviors; and are associated with low moral standards.

However, a study, led by Gilad Feldman et al., (published in a paper titled, “Frankly, we do give a damn: The relationship between profanity and honesty”) observed the relationship between profanity and honesty and reached the conclusion that people who swear are more authentic.

Let’s take a look at the relationship between profanity and honesty, as reported by the study, and look at the various other benefits of cursing.

Let’s ducking get to it!

Swearing Is an Indicator of Honesty, Here’s Why

Profanity has a long and illustrious tradition in society. It is found in all cultures and every person has a unique relationship with it.

“I don’t trust people who don’t swear.” That’s a saying you may be familiar with or one that you believe.

It’s an intuitive statement that reflects a widespread belief that people who swear often are more likely to be honest and that people who shy away from swearing hide away from the truth.

Image credit: Discover Magazine

On the other hand, swearing critics say that it makes us appear ill-mannered, less educated, rude and untrustworthy. Just like our mothers told us.

However, swearing has several benefits. Some of them being persuasion skills, pain relief, stamina, and most surprisingly, honesty. Let’s take a look at the latter benefit of swearing: honesty.

Geldman conducted the research study in an effort to resolve a timeworn conflict in social science about whether swearing signifies dishonesty or authenticity.

Some social scientists, and most people, have the view that because profanity is frowned on, people who used it often are more likely to lie and break other social norms. Others have the view that those who used profanity are more likely to be authentic.

The results of the study are unambiguous: swearing is a measure of honesty.

Researchers conducted three related studies on societal, interpersonal and social media levels. In each of the three cases, it was found that those who swear were more honest than those who did not.

To measure degrees of honesty, researchers surveyed 276 people using an Eysenck Personality Questionnaire.

Participants were asked to report on how often they cursed, their favorite curse words and their emotions during the situations in which they used them. Their responses were then evaluated and the result was an apparent and considerable link between swearing and honesty.

And that correlation extended to the social media study as well.

The study also looked at the status updates of 73,000 Facebook users from all over the world to examine the frequency of profanity, and the pronouns that have been linked to lying by previous studies. They found that people who used profanity were overall more honest in Facebook status updates.

The researchers also studied the integrity levels of American states to match them with swearing frequency. They thus looked at the 2012 Integrity Analyses of 48 U.S. states which measured transparency and conscientiousness in 48 state governments.

The researchers correlated the data to the swearing scores from the Facebook study and identified a relationship between using more or less profanity and the state where the person resided.

New Jersey was found to be the state that used the most profanity and also scored high on government integrity. States that avoid swearing like South Carolina scored low on government integrity as well as openness.

The overall results?

“Profanity was associated with less lying and deception at the individual level, and with higher integrity at the society level,” write the researchers.

The researchers found that people are more likely to swear to express themselves as opposed to attacking others. And while liars were prone to using third-person pronouns or negative words, honest people were more prone to profanity.

"There are two ways of looking at it. You might think if someone is swearing a lot, this is a negative social behaviour seen as a bad thing to do, so if someone swears they are probably a bad person as well,” said the study's co-author David Stillwell,

“On the other hand, they are not filtering their language so they are probably also not putting their stories about what is going on through similar filters which might turn them into untruths.

That is what we seemed to land on in this study, that people who use the language that comes to mind first are less likely to be playing games with the truth."

Researchers used the example of President Donald Trump, who used swear words in some of his speeches while campaigning, and was considered more genuine than his rivals.

The researchers however did not dig deep into the reasons for the correlation, but we can reasonably assume that those who swear more care less about what others think of them.

That also means that they filter themselves less which in turn means that they are more honest in their interactions with others.

We must keep in mind that honesty in expression and honesty as an individual are not necessarily linked. For example, someone who curses could also commit crimes.

It certainly now makes it easier to figure out who among your colleagues or potential business partners is honest. Just keep an eye out for those who don’t give a duck.

Other Swearing Myths Debunked and Potential Benefits

Image credit: The Verge

Research shows that children start swearing as young as six years old or even younger and that we tend to swear about 0.5 to 0.7 percent of the time (about a dozen curse words, give or take, depending on how much you talk).

So it seems to be a natural phenomenon. Could that mean there are certain health and mental benefits to swearing? Let’s take a look.

Swearing Improves Your Pain Tolerance and Physical Performance

Letting out a few expletives when you trip or stub your toe probably helps you deal with the pain, right? There’s a reason for that.

A 2011 study found that swearing can increase your pain tolerance in the given moment. The researchers hypothesized that cursing can prompt your body’s release of natural sedation chemicals which have similar alleviating effects to drugs like morphine.

The reason we swear so much has no root - it is somewhat a mystery. Psychologists say that it has something to do with emotional release: it allows us to express a particular feeling strongly.

Richard Stephens, psychologist and author of Black Sheep: The Hidden Benefits of Being Bad, believes profanities serve a more physical purpose.

Stephens and his team found that swearing helps with pain management. “We did a study a number of years ago looking at why people swear when they hurt themselves and we found out it helps people cope with pain—they can cope with the pain for longer,” Stephens told Newsweek.

“They showed raised heart rate, making us think the mechanism of the pain relief was to do with acute stress and the fight or flight response.”

To add on to this research, and to also test if swearing triggers the fight or flight response and enhances physical performance, researchers asked study participants to do two exercises while swearing repeatedly or uttering a neutral word.

Turns out, your ability to pump out profanity may help you pump some iron. Yes, swearing can impact your workout.

Study participants were evaluated during bicycle and hand-grip exercises and were told to say and repeat neutral or curse words during the exercises. Swearing helped to improve performance in both tests.

“On one measure of power in the first five seconds, it was a four percent increase in the swearing vs non swearing group, then across the full 30 seconds it was about two percent increase,” Stephens says.

“This still measures performance, but it isn’t as extreme. In the grip task they produced about eight percent stronger grip in swearing vs non-swearing,” Stephens explains.

There were no physical responses to indicate that the fight or flight response was triggered which means that another mechanism was involved.

“The reason we ran this study was that we were anticipating this fight or flight response. But our data don’t support that at all. So we don’t really know [what swearing does]. It could be to do with pain tolerance.

If you look at pain literature there are many different strategies people can employ to reduce pain perception. Even distracting somebody can reduce pain—if you were getting pain relief then that might allow you to perform better.

But we also consider whether it could be what psychologists call generalized inhibition. In other words, when you swear, you just don’t care as much.

You’re just not as self-conscious. It could be that. That would be interesting because that would suggest swearing might help beyond physical tasks.”

Swearing is an Indicator of Intelligence

Studies have shown that fluency in profane language is associated with having larger vocabulary in general. In fact, swearing may be linked to a higher IQ and higher verbal intelligence.

Swearers have historically and culturally been rated as less dependable, intelligent and competent, as evidenced by this research study from 1973.

Frequent swearing is also positively correlated with extroversion and neurtoticism; and negatively correlated with mindfulness and agreeableness.

But that is not the case for every swearer. Studies have debunked the myth that swearing is for those of low class, lack of education and low language fluency.

Researchers found that those with a higher tendency to swear were actually quite fluent in the language, contrary to popular belief that they are lacking proper or sufficient vocabulary.

A 2004 study also found that although swearing reduces as you go higher up the social ladder, the upper middle class swears way more than the lower middle class. That highlights that at some point on the social ladder, people no longer care about the effects of swearing.

Swearing Helps Us to Communicate Better

Swearing helps us to communicate more effectively. When we curse, we communicate both the meaning of the sentence and the emotional meaning of the sentence (or our emotional reaction to something).

It enables us to express our anger or pain to alert someone that they need to back off or distance themselves without using physical violence.

Studies have also shown that swearing adds quite a lot to the effectiveness and persuasiveness of a message, especially when it is seen as a positive surprise. It might particularly work for politicians.

A study discovered that when people read a blog post by a fictitious politician, the post with profanity increased the perceived casualness of the text and improved people’s views of the source.

However, when readers were asked about whether it impacts their voting decision, the answer was negative: it didn’t impact their voting decision.

The researchers believe that the findings are restricted to, or specific to, the context of the blog post, especially given the fact that we swear more online.

Swearing May Calm You Down

Experts say that cursing is not always a bad thing, especially since it may help to calm you down.

“The health benefits of swearing include increased circulation, elevated endorphins, and an overall sense of calm, control and well-being,” Neel Burton, a psychiatrist and author of Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions, wrote in Psychology Today.

Swearing is a Form of Politeness

Swearing is also viewed as a form of politeness. A New Zealand study looked at the interactions between workers at a soap factory, particularly their use of the term “fuck”.

They found that although workers swore regularly among themselves, they refrained from swearing as much with colleagues from other teams.

The word “fuck” in the work environment was an expression of solidarity and was employed as a bonding tool among teammates. It also eased tensions and put members with different levels of authority and responsibility as equals.

The Mechanics of Swearing

There are obviously times when swearing is beneficial but let’s take a look at the mechanics of swearing.

Curse words may be in the same part of the brain that the rest of our vocabulary resides in. So how are we able to hold our tongues in front of our bosses, parents and grandparents (because let’s be honest, swearing can make us look bad in front of that group)?

It may be because swearing is handled differently by the brain than regular language, according to Richard Stephens.

Most language is located in the cortex and specific areas in the left hemisphere of the brain. So swearing might be associated with a more primitive, older part of the brain.

“Aphasics usually have damage to the left hemisphere and often have difficulty with speech. But there are plenty of recorded cases in which aphasics can use stereotypical language more fluently – meaning they can sing songs or swear fluently,” Stephens says.

“Research with people who suffer from Tourette’s syndrome, in which some have swearing tics, suggests that swearing is associated with a deeper lying brain structure – the basal ganglia.”

Research also speculates that the degree or amount of benefits you derive from swearing depends on how forbidden the swear word is to you (which depends on if or how often you were punished for using them as a child).

A 2013 study found that people who were punished for using swear words as children were more physiologically aroused when they read a list of swear words aloud. That means that the health and other benefits we derive from swearing could be related to our childhood history with profanity.

Wrapping Up

Profanity exists in every language and culture - in fact, swearing is universal. We need it to satisfy certain needs. So a little swearing now and then is not as terrible as you had previously thought.

As we have seen, it does have health benefits and can make you seem more honest to others. That it not to say that you should use it excessively.

When swearing is coupled with anger, it can be harmful to your overall health and to those around you.

But the next time you stub your toe, feel free to say “duck!”