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.

Image: Flickr/Threeboy


  1. Deedee on January 20, 2017 at 3:52 am

    I’m guilty of having the worst potty mouth ever! However I am an extreme introvert, (and very comfortable being one), but make me angry and I use the “f” word like a comma! I’ve read that introverts cuss less than extroverts. Ha! Not even close to true, at least in my case.
    Funny things make me cuss. An unexpected happy surprise makes me cuss. Sad things make me cuss.Irritating things make me cuss. Physically injuring myself makes me cuss. Let’s face it, EVERYTHING is an occasion to cuss for me!

    I was once told by (a self proclaimed genius IQ level) man that my excessive use of profanity was indicative of a lack of intelligence. My boss overheard our conversation and took it upon herself to arrange for us to take an IQ test.
    Not only did I surpass my friend the criticiser (sp?) in scoring by ten points, I also completed the testing 25 minutes before him!
    He recanted his assessment of my lack of intelligence and I made a concerted effort to watch my mouth when he was around.

    Cussing is just a part of me. Neither of my parents have ever used a word worse than shit in front of their three children. None of my extended family are heavy users of profanity. None of my childhood friends were excessive cussers, so I am just a natural born mother f#%@ing potty mouth.
    No need for studies to determine why some cuss more than others. It just is what it is. I’m a potty mouth and always have been.
    (I’m 56 years old so that’s a ton of cuss words uttered. I don’t need a special occasion to “pull up taboo words”… I’ve am entire arsenal at a seconds notice!

    I DO HAVE SOME DECORUM though. I’m mindful of offending people in my surroundings. Except when I’m angry, all kid gloves come off!

    • Neil Petersen on January 20, 2017 at 4:03 pm

      Ha, that’s funny. The thing about swearing coming from a lack of intelligence is an old myth, but if anything, people who use more swear words just have a larger vocabulary! Thanks for commenting.

  2. Sally High on January 22, 2017 at 12:08 am

    Very informative article.