Swearing is everywhere. People use it in everyday speech, when someone %#@$%*^ ticks them off, or when they drop the @#$%*^& hammer on their toe. When we are in pain, especially, we tend to utter those naughty words and phrases. Why do we do it? I mean, we could say virtually anything but we choose to bleep. Does it alter our perception of the pain? Possibly. In a wonderful, if slightly dated, article I stumbled across in NeuroReport, suggests that swearing increases pain tolerance.
Originally, author Richard Stephens and his colleagues set out to prove the opposite, that swearing decreases pain tolerance and increases pain perception (as per the accepted hypotheses at the time).
The scientists recruited 67 undergraduate volunteers for their experiment (I'm sure money or free pizza was promised). They sat the students down individually and asked them to make two lists. List #1 consisted of words they might use after they had hit themselves on the thumb with a hammer. List #2 consisted of words they might use to describe a table. Next they needed a baseline or starting point, so they put one of the student's hands into room temperature water for 3 minutes. After that the hand went into cold water. The student was asked to keep their hand in the cold water for as long as they could. In some instances the student was asked to repeat a swear word from List #1, and in others they were asked to repeat a table word from List #2. All the while, the student's heart rate was recorded and they were asked to rate the amount of pain they felt.
Unexpectedly, the researchers found that the students who sweared while in the cold water had increased heart rates, reported less pain, and kept their hands in the water longer. And apparently swearing worked better for females than for males. Yeah!
What the study doesn't clear up is why swearing has such an effect. The authors suggest that it induces negative emotions and triggers fight or flight responses.
I don't know, maybe it just feels good to be bad.
p.s. Anyone a little disappointed they didn't ask the students to actually hit their thumbs with hammers? Seems like a more realistic response to me. Guess they would have had to promise more free food for that one.