Swearing increases pain tolerance

SWEARING occurs in most cultures – people swear to let off steam, or to shock or insult others. It is also a common response to a painful experience. We’ve all done it: after stubbing our toe, or hitting our thumb with a hammer, we draw a sharp breath and mutter a swear word. Until now, though, whether swearing actually alters our perception of pain had not been investigated. But according to a new study due to be published next month in the journal NeuroReport, swearing increases pain tolerance, enabling us to withstand at least one form of pain for longer.

Some pain theorists regard our tendency to swear after hurting ourselves to be a form of “pain-related catastrophising” – an exaggerated negative mind set which is brought to bear during a painful experience. As such, swearing is thought of as a maladaptive response, which contributes to the intensity of the pain and emotional distress. Given that it is such a common response, Richard Stephens and his colleagues at the Keele University School of Psychology set out test the hypothesis that swearing would decrease pain tolerance and increase pain perception.

They recruited 67 undergraduates, and asked to make two short lists of words – one containing five words they might use after hitting themselves on the thumb with a hammer, the other containing five words they might use to describe a table. The participants submerged one of their hands into room temperature water for three minutes, to provide a standardized starting point, then transferred it to a container of cold water and instructed to keep it submerged for as long as they could. In one condition, they were told to repeat the first swear word they had included in their list; in another, they repeated one of the words describing a table.

The researchers measured how long the participants kept their hands submerged in cold water, and asked them to rate the amount of pain they felt. Their heart rates were also recorded after they had submerged their hands in room temperature water as well as after the submersion in cold water. Contrary to their hypothesis, they found that swearing actually reduced the amount of pain felt. The participants kept their hands submerged in the cold water longer for longer, and also reported experiencing less pain, when they repeated a swear word than when they repeated a word describing a table. Swearing was also associated with increased heart rate.

Swearing therefore enabled the participants to tolerate to the cold temperature for longer, and also caused a reduction in their perception of the pain felt. A difference between males and females was observed. Swearing led to a greater reduction in pain perception and a bigger increase in heart rate in females. Most interestingly though, the effect of swearing in females occurred regardless of their tendency to catastrophise their pain. On the other hand, in the males, catastrophising was found to diminish the effects of swearing on the felt pain. This is interesting in light of other findings which show that men generally catastrophise less, but swear more often, than women.

This study shows that swearing appears to have an analgesic effect under certain conditions. Exactly how is unclear, but the authors suggest that it is because swearing induces negative emotions. It is well known that pain has a strong emotional aspect to it. Fear of pain, for example, is known to enhance pain perception, possibily by activating pathways which descend from the brain and modulate noxious stimuli entering the spinal cord. Swearing, too, is known to induce negative emotions (according to Steven Pinker, it taps into the “deep and ancient parts of the emotional brain”). It may therefore trigger a physiological alarm reaction known as the fight or flight response, which accelerates the heart rate and reduces sensitivity to pain.

Related:


Stephens, R. et al (2009). Swearing as a response to pain. NeuroReport 120: 1056-1060. DOI: 10.1097/WNR.0b013e32832e64b1.

14 thoughts on “Swearing increases pain tolerance

  1. I remember hearing about hypnosis being tested for pain tolerance. Same set up. Cold water immersion. To be frank, I’m surprised no one tested it before now. On the otherhand I’m not surprised by the result. I’m smart enough not to simply buy into common sense answers, but it seems to me, from personal experience, that being forced to stoically and quietly deal with pain is much, much, much more difficult, than simply spouting off several choice swear words. Seems to feel better faster that way too.

  2. I’m not sure their conclusion about reduced pain perception is necessarily true. Participants may be feeling uncomfortable of swearing while observed, thus pay less attention to their pain and more to the uncomfortable situation (as compared to the control condition with the table words). That has nothing to do with pain perception per se. And if they are feeling uncomfortable, their heart rate will go up – just as Stephens et al. report.

  3. Did anyone think to check whether it was Anglo-Saxon that did the trick? What if shouting “Pretty bird! Pretty bird! Pretty bird!” would work? It might be that shouting is what helps.
    If the comparison was between ‘swearing’ and silence, why did they pick those two? They should have looked at speaking versus silence, shouting versus speaking, and so on to pick out the thing or things that produce the effect.

  4. I’m glad that you brought up Steven Pinker, Mo! I just recently finished reading “The Stuff of Thought”, wherein he talks a bit about his ideas on swearing. In “The Stuff of Thought”, Pinker speculates that cathartic swearing may originate from a cross-wiring of the mammalian Rage Circuit. Essentially, a sudden pain or frustration may the Rage circuit, which in turn would activate the limbic system and representations of concepts that are charged with strong negative emotions (like taboo words). In humans, this may result in a blast of epithets rather than a primal shriek. Since taboo words are automatically processed among humans (you can get a Stroop effect for swear words written in different colors), this automatically lets others know that you mean serious business.
    That being said, I find it fascinating that swearing actually dulls pain sensitivity! This suggests that the system could work both ways – that swearing could activate the portions of the limbic system associated with pain sensitivity. Very cool.

  5. I think it may have something to do with swearing acting as a distractive device, and hence reducing attentional focus on the negative stimulus. It’s the diffused attention-split between the act of vocalisation and the experience of its production, and the painful stimulus-that diminishes the perception of the pain.

  6. “God is love” works better than swearing according to other research. See Amy B. Wackholz and Kenneth I. Pargament, Is Spirituality a Critical Ingredient of Meditation? Journal of Behavioral Medicine, Vol. 28, No. 4, August 2005.
    Wackholz et al. used three groups, one group was taught relaxation, one group secular meditation, and one group spiritual meditation. The spiritual meditation group was given a choice from four mantras: “God is peace,” “God is joy,” “God is good,” or “God is love.” The groups practiced 20 minutes per day for two weeks.
    On the outcome of holding one’s hand in cold water, the spiritual meditators held their hand twice as long as either of the other two groups. This cold water endurance test is exactly the same test used in this report to test swearing.
    It might just be my strange preference, but somehow I like the sound of “God is love” better than the sound of “God damn it.” Another thought is that maybe “God is love” works best before the pain and a hearty “God damn it” works best after the pain hits.
    Harold Scarbro, Psychologist

  7. Agree totally with commentor Ep. Swearing in front of people you don’t know at the top of your lungs = highly distracting activity. These words are “taboo,” and somewhat risky to say in public. Distraction has being shown to increase pain tolerance, time and time again. But it’s still an interesting study. I suppose one might expect that taboo words would or could augment the pain rather than distract from it?

  8. @Ep: The effect couldn’t be explained by a mere split in attention between vocalization and pain, since participants in the control group uttered neutral words. That being said, the emotionally laden nature of the swear words might have served as a distraction – as I mentioned in my earlier comment, swear words written in different colors produce a Stroop boggle effect when participants attempt to name the colors of the words, so it seems like these concepts easily catch peoples’ attention and interfere with other mental processes.

  9. Participants may be feeling uncomfortable of swearing while observed… Swearing in front of people you don’t know at the top of your lungs = highly distracting activity.
    ??? This perspective startles me at least as much as the reported research.
    It would be interesting to see this experiment repeated with, say, Sunday school teachers and sailors, to see if habitual swearers get more or less out of it than the profanity-averse.
    Better yet, sign up Chris Mooney, Sheril Kirschenbaum, PZ Myers and Comrade PhysioProf.

  10. Isn’t there a mistake? The title of the article and the last line featuring the conclusion seem contradictory. Forgive me if this is a misunderstanding, it’s quite late and I may be confused a bit.
    A.L.G. (France)

  11. … Makes sense. What does it mean that when I’m hurt I usually shout random nonsense, like ‘grfl’ and ‘fargleblast’? I sometimes swear, but usually what comes out sounds like someone mashed the keyboard on a speak and spell…

  12. I’d like to see a study that looks at ‘verbal reaction’ in general rather than just swearing. For some people, chattering of one sort or another is a huge stress reliever. What about people who crack jokes or sing while in pain/undergoing painful procedures?

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