For some, it’s bad manners. For others, it’s practically an art form. It is a taboo that exists in every culture and is a feature of many people’s daily lives. It inspires outrage, laughter, sadness – and sometimes even romance.
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“It” is cursing, of course. And it has scientists talking.
In recent years, studies have linked profanity to health benefits — such as pain relief — and traits — such as honesty. Are these associations real, or are all these studies a bunch of BS? We spoke to health psychologist Grace Tworek, PsyD, to learn more.
Does cursing make you smarter?
You’ve probably heard a variation of the phrase “swearing is the sign of a weak spirit and an even weaker character” at some point in your life. It implies that swearing is a form of compensation – that the only reason people use foul language is that they are not smart enough to express themselves properly.
According to a 2015 study, the opposite is true. Researchers compared general fluency — measured by a Controlled Oral Word Association Test (COWAT) — to taboo word fluency and animal word fluency.
The experiment may sound complicated, but it isn’t. The examiner chooses a letter and asks the subject to name as many words as possible that begin with that letter. They then do the task again and ask the subject to write down swear words that begin with the letter. Finally, they ask the subject to list animals whose names begin with that letter.
The result, in the words of Dr. Tworek: “They noticed a trend. The more swear words you can generate, the more regular words you generate as well. So it is likely that you have a larger vocabulary on both sides.” In other words, the more words you know, the more bad words you know. Fluid is fluid.
But wait! Before you run off to teach little Timmy the seven words you can’t say on television, let’s unpack this research a bit.
Correlation does not equal causation
When asked how she reacts to studies linking swearing to intelligence, Dr. Tworek replies: ‘All I hear is my undergraduate statistics professor saying, ‘correlation does not equal causation’. It literally echoes through my head.”
“Correlation is not the same as causation” means that you cannot draw a conclusion about cause and effect based on a simple association between two things.
The classic example is the correlation between ice cream sales and shark attacks. When you look at the numbers, ice cream sales and shark attacks seem related, but we all know that ice cream sales don’t cause shark attacks. The actually the cause is the weather: both ice cream sales and shark attacks soar in the summer heat, as we flock to the beach – and the freezer – to keep cool.
Similarly, there isn’t enough evidence to prove a causal relationship between profanity and brain power.
It’s not an exact science
It’s also worth noting that these cursing and intelligence studies… well, they don’t really measure intelligence. The concept is too complex to define based on a single variable.
Like dr. Tworek puts it, “I think if we’re going to do a fair assessment of intelligence, you really need a full neuropsychological battery.”
Most studies looking at swearing confuse intelligence and vocabulary. A broad vocabulary is allowed indicate intelligence, but it’s not the same. Sounding smart and being smart are vastly different. It might be more accurate to say that swearing indicates a broad vocabulary.
Congratulations, you are a human synonym!
Are there benefits to swearing?
Anyone who’s been cut off in traffic or stubbed a toe can attest that swearing feels good, whether you’re a genius or not. For years, researchers have worked to put some hard science behind all the anecdotal evidence foul-mouthed people have collected throughout their lives.
If you google “the benefits of swearing” you will find a lot of information, but not all are created equal. For example, many academics have speculated that swearing is an evolutionary adaptation that reduces the risk of physical aggression. Others talk about it as a way to build emotional intelligence and social bonds. These are interesting hypotheses, but they cannot be proven.
Swearing, honesty and creativity
While much of the literature on the benefits of swearing is theoretical, some ideas have been put to the test. Scientists have found correlations between swearing and:
- Honesty. Profanity is positively correlated with honesty and integrity in three different 2017 studies.
- creativity. Unsurprisingly, researchers also used tests like the COWAT to measure creativity. Not surprisingly, they found the same positive correlation between cursing and creativity that they found between cursing and intelligence. Doctors have also found that people who experience aphasia after a stroke often retain their ability to swear like sailors. There are many reasons that can happen. One theory is that swearing and other “automatic language” lives in the right side of your brain. For better or worse, we usually think of the right side of the brain as the “creative side,” which is why swearing is a sign of creativity.
It’s fun to talk about whether or not bad language = good people at a party, but the science to support those ideas is ultimately pretty thin.
Instead, try discussing the findings on the impact of swearing on pain tolerance. They are much stronger and – depending on your luck – may come in handy one day.
Swearing improves pain tolerance
One of the most common ways to measure pain perception and tolerance is a cold pressure pain threshold (CPT). Basically, study participants dip their hands into ice-cold water and keep them there for as long as possible.
In 2009, a group of study participants applied for a CPT. Half of the participants repeated a swear word, while the other half repeated a neutral word. That study found that the potty-mouthed participants kept their hands in the water longer — and generally rated the test as less painful.
Unfortunately, the magic of curses comes from moderation. A 2011 study showed that the more often you swear, the lower the impact it has on your pain tolerance and stamina. So if you’re planning to dip your hand in ice water for fun anytime soon, maybe watch your tongue.
At this point you may be wondering: is this effect universal? After all, different cultures have different views on cursing. A 2017 study comparing the impact of swearing on pain tolerance in people of English and Japanese descent showed that when it comes to foul language, we are more alike than we are different. While we may not use the same words — or say them with the same frequency — the impact on pain is the same.
So, what about neutral substitutions for vulgar language? Does yelling “fudge,” “shoot,” or “dagnabbit” have the same impact on your body as the words they filter out? Could parents actually be rewarded for their self-censorship?
Unfortunately, based on the available research, the answer is no. A 2020 study compared the physiological responses of individuals using four different words during CPT. The first word was what we’ll oh-so-subtly call “the f-word.” The second was a neutral word with no emotional connotation. The third and fourth words were ‘fouch’ and ‘twizpipe’, made-up ‘new’ curse words. The researchers discovered this while talking about ‘fouching twizpipes’ during the CPT did elevate emotional and humorous scores over neutral words, it not reduce pain.
Should you swear more often?
We’ve all heard the saying, “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Now that we know that swearing has a number of health benefits and may be correlated with positive traits, you might be wondering if that’s good advice?
Should we adjust our behavior based on these findings? Could increasing our daily dose of f-bombs be our ticket to Mensa?
That’s not the takeaway from Dr. Tworek. “I think the most important thing I take away from these findings is to not be quick to pass judgment on someone based on the way they present themselves.”
Intelligence is complicated and there is no perfect way to measure it. Dr. Tworek believes that everyone, including doctors, should be focused on getting to know people. Instead of checking your language – or anyone else’s – try not to make assumptions about intelligence or character based on this one data point.
As colorful as it is, we are all – each of us – more than our vocabulary.