Swearing appears to make you stronger, scientists have discovered. In two experiments, researchers found that uttering profanities increased physical performance by up to eight percent, apparently by making them more tolerant of the pain.
Why we swear is something of a mystery. Psychologists say it is to do with emotional release, allowing people to express a specific feeling strongly. But Richard Stephens, from Keele University, U.K., believes profanities serve a physical purpose.
In previous research, Stephens and colleagues found swearing helps with pain management: “We did a study a number of years ago looking at why people swear when they hurt themselves and we found out it helps people cope with pain—they can cope with the pain for longer,” he tells Newsweek. “They showed raised heart rate, making us think the mechanism of the pain relief was to do with acute stress and the fight or flight response.”
To build on this research, and to test the idea that if swearing triggers the fight or flight response, it should also increase physical performance, scientists asked participants to undertake two exercises. During this, they were asked to repeat either a swear word or a neutral word. Participants could pick their own swear word.
The first test involved 29 participants cycling on a bike for a short but intense period. In this experiment, researchers found participants were stronger when they were saying the swear word than the neutral word. “On one measure of power in the first five seconds, it was a four percent increase in the swearing vs non swearing group, then across the full 30 seconds it was about two percent increase,” Stephens says.
For the second exercise, 52 participants completed a handgrip test. “This still measures performance, but it isn’t as extreme. In the grip task they produced about eight percent stronger grip in swearing vs non-swearing,” Stephens explains.
But why does swearing help? Counter to their initial hypothesis, Stephens said there were no physical indicators to suggest the fight or flight response had been triggered, meaning another mechanism must be involved.
“The reason we ran this study was that we were anticipating this fight or flight response. But our data don’t support that at all. So we don’t really know [what swearing does]. It could be to do with pain tolerance. If you look at pain literature there are many different strategies people can employ to reduce pain perception. Even distracting somebody can reduce pain—if you were getting pain relief then that might allow you to perform better.
“But we also consider whether it could be what psychologists call generalized inhibition. In other words, when you swear, you just don’t care as much. You’re just not as self-conscious. It could be that. That would be interesting because that would suggest swearing might help beyond physical tasks.”
The study is currently under peer review. The team now plans to return to a previous study on swearing and pain to try to better understand the mechanisms involved. “I think people swear for a reason,” Stephens says. “It’s not just a mindless tick in the language.”