• Health

Bleep! My Finger! Why Swearing Helps Ease Pain

2 minute read
Tiffany Sharples


There is a certain four-letter word that is forbidden in polite company but often uttered by women in labor. According to a study in the journal NeuroReport, saying the F word can do more than vent frustration: it can actually reduce physical pain. To prove this, psychologists at Britain’s Keele University asked 64 college students to immerse their hand in ice water for as long as possible. In one go-round, the students were allowed to repeat a curse word of their choice while they endured the painfully cold water; in the other, they were asked to use a nonexpletive. Swearing not only allowed students to withstand the discomfort longer but also decreased their perception of pain intensity.

The study found that when participants used a curse word, their heart rates were consistently higher–a physiological response consistent with fight or flight–than when they were repeating a neutral word. “In swearing, people have an emotional response, and it’s the emotional response that actually triggers the reduction of pain,” says Richard Stephens, the study’s lead author.

“Swearing probably comes from a very primitive reflex that evolved in animals,” says Steven Pinker, a Harvard psychologist and the author of The Stuff of Thought, an exploration of the psychology of language. “In humans, our vocal tract has been hijacked by our language skills,” so instead of squealing in pain, “we articulate our yelp with a word colored with negative emotion.”

But next time you drop the F bomb, consider this: in Stephens’ study, cursing reduced the perception of pain more strongly in women than in men. That may be because in daily life “men swear more than women,” says Pinker, which could have a dulling effect on these verbal painkillers in men. “That’s one of the reasons that I think people should not overuse profanity,” says Pinker. “That’s not because I’m a prude but because it blunts [swearwords] of their power when you do need them. You should save them for just the right occasions.”

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