Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo after stubbing his toe on the grass.
It might be socially unacceptable, but an outburst of swearing after a DIY mishap or stubbing a toe can actually do some good. Scientists have discovered that uttering swear words can help to lessen the feeling of physical pain.
The study by researchers at Keele University found that volunteers were able to withstand pain for longer when they swore compared to when they used words which were not offensive.
Dr Richard Stephens, who conducted the study at the university’s school of psychology, believes it may explain why swearing is still common place in languages around the world.
He suggests that swearing could have evolved as a way of raising aggression levels and reducing the feeling of pain to allow our ancestors to flee or fight back when attacked by predators.
He said: “We think it could be part of the flight or fight response. In the volunteers who swore, we also found they had an elevated heart rate, so it could be increasing their aggression levels.
“Increased aggression has been shown to reduce people’s sensitivity to pain, so it could be swearing is helping this process.”
The researchers, whose findings are published in the journal NeuroReport, tested 64 students’ tolerance to pain by asking them to submerge their hand in a tub of ice water for as long as they could while repeating a series of swear words of their choice.
They were then asked to carry out the task again while repeating non-offensive words they would use to describe a table. One subject, however, had to be excluded from the trial because they could not suggest any swear words.
They found that volunteers who swore were able to keep their hands submerged in the water for an average of 40 seconds longer. When questioned about their perceived pain they also rated it as being lower.
The researchers also measured the volunteers’ heart rate and found that it increased while swearing.
Dr Stephens said that the result was the opposite of what they had expected as most psychologists suggest that swearing is a symptom of “catastrophism”, where there the drama-queen inside everyone takes over.
He said: “Swearing is quite an emotional form of language and it is an almost universal human linguistic phenomenon.
“When my wife was in labour with our daughter she felt the need to f and blind at one point, but was very apologetic afterwards. The midwife said they were used to that kind of language on the delivery ward, so it got me thinking.”
“Our research shows one potential reason why swearing has developed and why is persists.”