In a 2009 study, researchers had participants identify one neutral word (one they’d use to describe a table) and one go-to profanity (the first word to come to mind when they thought about hitting their thumb with a hammer). Once they had their words in mind, participants each put a hand in a container of painfully-cold water.
Researchers found people who repeated their chosen four-letter word could keep their hands in the cold water longer than those who used the neutral word. They also found participants who used swear words reported they felt less pain overall than the people using their table descriptor.
These results were actually the opposite of what the research team expected. Researcher and Keele University psychologist Richard Stephens says his team thought swearing would make the pain even more intense in participants’ minds.
Another interesting point: women seemed to get more relief from swearing than the male participants.
In a second study, this one published in 2011, Dr. Stephens and his team asked a follow up question: would the pain-easing effect of swearing vary depending on how often participants generally swear in everyday life?
As you might imagine, the team found that participants who swore more often experienced less relief from swearing in a painful situation. The results suggested a continuum, covering participants who swear often (and experienced very little pain relief by swearing during the experiment) to those who swear sometimes (who experienced some relief) to those who rarely swear (who experienced the most relief).
Dr. Stephens puts it this way, “…while saying that swearing as a response to pain might be beneficial, there is evidence that if you swear too often in everyday situations the power of swearing won’t be there when you really might need it.”
The moral to the story: keep your language clean when you can (and when the kids are around, of course) and you’ll feel better when you’re showing off your impressive vocabulary to cope with pain.