The Science of Swearing
How much do you really know about swearing?
Or if that question is too broad, here’s a more specific one: how many swear words can you name?
This second question is one that psychologists sometimes ask study participants. Researchers call the number of taboo words someone can summon up one’s “swearing fluency,” and investigating people’s swearing fluency has provided some interesting insights into why people swear.
One recent study found that people’s swearing fluency may go up in emotionally arousing situations. The psychologists running the study had participants play either a first-person shooter video game or a golf video game, and found that playing the shooter but not the golf game made people able to call more swear words to mind. An interpretation the researchers offered for the link between swearing and emotional arousal is that swearing is a form of “emotional expression.”
But it turns out swearing may have a more practical purpose too: increasing people’s pain tolerance. Research done in 2011 suggests that swearing increases both people’s pain tolerance and their heart rate.
The same study found, though, that swearing might be most useful when done in moderation. As people swear more, each swear word’s power to boost pain tolerance seems to go down, meaning people who swear like sailors get the least benefit from each swear word and people who swear conservatively get the most.
Speaking of which, researchers have found correlations between how frequently people swear and several personal traits. In particular, people who swear prolifically tend to be more extraverted and hostile but less agreeable, conscientious, religious and sexually anxious.
There’s still plenty for psychologists to learn about swear words, but the research that’s been done so far suggests that swearing is a form of emotional expression that has specific functions like increasing pain tolerance. How much people swear even seems to relate to several core personality traits. From a scientific standpoint, then, the idea that swearing doesn’t serve any real purpose is probably a bunch of bullshit.