While I’m not an expert handyman, I don’t mind trying to fix things around the house (except electricity – no, thank you). My skills are such that I’ve occasionally hit my thumb which invariably elicits a yelp swear word from me. Over the years, I’ve wondered why I feel better after the outburst. Does swearing reduce pain?
Richard Stephens, a psychologist at Keele University in England, has designed multiple experiments to find out. In one version, undergraduate students twice placed their hands in ice-cold water for as long as they could; one of the times they uttered a swear word and the other they used a more common word. Stephens also measured the participants heart rates and galvanic skin response (GSR tracks changes in sweat gland activity typically caused by emotional stress).
When using the swear word, participants kept their hands in the ice water almost 50% longer. In addition, their heart rates increased and their GSR went down. Stephens concluded the participants experienced less pain while swearing.
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. Richard Stephens.
If you don’t swear when you feel pain, you might consider starting. Stephens conducted another experiment to test whether the effect only worked on people who were comfortable swearing in front of others or who at least had sufficient practice doing so in their daily lives. Participants were asked how likely they were to swear when in pain or angry. The results showed “it didn’t make a difference; swearing worked equally well.” Even non-swearers got relief.
Whether you’re used to swearing may not matter but the word you use does. An unpublished Stephens experiment showed that the strength of the expletive did have an impact on how long you could keep your hand in the ice water and how much pain you felt. Milder words such a “darn” or “shoot” had more effect than a neutral word like “tree” but less effect than a stronger word (cue George Carlin’s 7 dirty words). If you’re going to use the technique, it isn’t worth being half-hearted.
The next time you get chastised by someone for swearing as a response to a painful situation, show them this article. You’ll feel better and maybe they will too.