A recent study found that repeating the “F” word during an ice water experiment increased subjects’ tolerance and threshold for pain. However, reciting made-up swear words showed no such pain-reducing effects. The study was published in Frontiers in Psychology.
Numerous studies have shown that the use of swear words can strengthen pain tolerance during an ice water experiment. UK researchers Stephens and Robertson set out to explore the mechanism behind this pain-relieving effect in a unique way. A team of specialists invented two new “swear” words with properties similar to known curse words. They then tested the invented words in a cold pressor experiment to see whether they would mimic the pain-reducing effects of known swear words.
One theory suggests that swearing produces analgesic effects through autonomic arousal caused by increased emotion. To explore this idea, researchers chose the made-up swear word “fouch”, selected for its emotion-provoking potential. Another theory suggests that swearing alleviates pain by distracting attention away from the painful event. Researchers accordingly chose the second made-up curse word “twizpipe”, for its potential to evoke distraction through humor.
A total of 92 individuals with a mean age of 27 took part in an experiment that included four conditions. Subjects were asked to submerge one hand in an ice water bath maintained at 3-5° C and were instructed to repeat a designated word while keeping their hand in the water. Depending on the condition, subjects were allocated either a neutral word (a word used to describe a table), the “F” word, the invented swear word “fouch”, or the invented swear word “twizpipe.” Subjects were asked to report when they begin to feel pain (an indication of pain threshold) and to only remove their hand once the pain became unbearable (an indication of pain tolerance).
Results replicated previous findings showing that repeating the “F” word increased participants’ tolerance for pain. In addition, results demonstrated for the first time that repeating the “F” word also increased subjects’ threshold for pain.
Surprisingly, reciting the made-up swear words of “fouch” and “twizpipe” did not increase pain tolerance nor pain threshold. The authors explain that the lack of pain-alleviating effects from the invented swear words, while unexpected, is not wholly surprising. “While it is not properly understood how swear words gain their power,” the authors say, “it has been suggested that swearing is learned during childhood and that aversive classical conditioning contributes to the emotionally arousing aspects of swear word use.”
While the words “fouch” and “twizpipe” were selected for their ability to evoke emotion and humour similar to traditional swear words, “these properties did not facilitate pain alleviation effects, suggesting that surface properties of swear words (such as how they sound) do not explain the hypoalgesic effects of swearing.”
Researchers also tested whether certain properties of swear words could explain the beneficial effect of swearing on pain tolerance. Following each trial, participants rated the word they had been asked to repeat with respect to the concepts of humor, emotion, and distraction. After mediation analysis, it was found that none of these three properties mediated the effects of swearing on pain tolerance.
Researchers point out the significance of these null findings. “While swearing was rated as distracting (more so than the other words) the level of distraction was not related to the pain alleviation effect.” The authors continue, “distraction may not be important in explaining how swearing produces hypoalgesic effect.”
The researchers conclude that their study provides new evidence that swearing can boost the threshold for pain, but that mediation analysis did not provide insight into the properties of swear words that make analgesic effects possible. The authors address the limitation that their study made no distinction between the type of emotion elicited by the words, and suggest that future research assess both positive and negative emotional arousal when it comes to swearing.
The study, “Swearing as a Response to Pain: Assessing Hypoalgesic Effects of Novel “Swear” Words”, was authored by Richard Stevens and Olly Robertson.