January 14, 2010
by Lisa Gualtieri, PhD, Adjunct Clinical Professor, Tufts University School of Medicine
Any woman who has had children knows that labor is painful. Psychologist Richard Stephens, at Keele University in England, was inspired by his wife’s “unsavory language during the throes of labor”. He questioned “whether swearing alters individuals’ experience of pain.”
Dr. Stephens conducted a study with 67 undergraduates as follows: They were asked to write down words that they might say after hitting their thumb with a hammer and words to describe a table. The students “then immersed a hand in frigid water for as long as they could bear, while either swearing or repeating an innocuous word. When people had a swear word for their mantra (popular choices: the s-word, the f-word, and two b-words), they were able to keep a hand in the cold water about 40 seconds longer. The people who swore also reported less pain after the fact. Swearing increased heart rate in participants, and researchers theorized that the increase might signal the beginning of a fight-or-flight response, which allows the body to tolerate or ignore pain.”
“Swearing increases your pain tolerance,” according to Dr. Stephens. Steven Pinker, a Harvard psychologist and author of The Stuff of Thought, an exploration of the psychology of language, said that “humans are hardwired to swear cathartically… Swearing probably comes from a very primitive reflex that evolved in animals.”
Diana Van Lancker Sidtis, a professor of speech language pathology and audiology at New York University, said that “in certain circumstances; either because we don’t bother to inhibit them or because the shock of pain or discomfort momentarily surpasses the safeguards; our impulse for obscenity takes over.”
Back to giving birth: Stephens’ study found that swearing reduced the perception of pain more strongly in women than in men. This may be because, according to Dr. Pinker, “men swear more than women,” thus “swearing retains more of an emotional punch [for women] because it has not been overused.