The Science Is In: Swearing Is Good For You

Although many people may still object to the use of bad language, scientists are now saying that people who swear may be healthier than those who do not. So, should we all start swearing regularly now?

The revelations come from a newly-published book, Swearing is Good For You: The Amazing Science of Bad Language, written by Emma Byrne who is a artificial intelligence research based in London, England.

But it might take many people to accept that swearing should perhaps be a larger part of our daily lives, particularly in the public sphere.

Swearing Is Offensive

Most people learn at an early age that swearing is offensive. Many kids picked up bad language in the playground, on the streets, or even at home typically from older children or adults. And most of us learn almost as soon as we begin swearing that we should not do it. So, we grow up with the notion that swearing is offensive.

The foolish and wicked practice of profane cursing and swearing is a vice so mean and low that every person of sense and character detests and despises it. – George Washington

This notion is reinforced by institutions such as the school or the church. But perhaps the most powerful cultural institution that reinforces the notion that swearing is bad more blankly is the mass media. Specifically, television where some words are still taboo and are rarely if ever heard.

Back in the 1970s stand up comedian George Carlin identified seven taboo words in his now famous monologue “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television”. The words Carlin identified are the following:

It is true that since the advent of and growth of cable television some of those words are less taboo than they once were, even on basic cable and broadcast television. In the United States, television content, including the language used during broadcasts is closely regulated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

But how much of this notion is cultural and how much is psychological and even biological?

Even though attitudes toward the use of profanity and other so-called bad language are constantly evolving, the general notion that swearing should be restricted to certain situations and kept out of public discourse remains strong.

In 2007, psychologist and Harvard professor Steven Pinker published a book titled The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature, in which he discusses how paradoxical it is for American society to value freedom of expression as highly as it does and yet censor words that mostly refer to execration and sex.

But he explains the psychological reasons for this to be the case. According to Pinker, these taboo words remain powerful (and, therefore, offensive) because they spark activity in the area of the brain where all our memories that are strikingly emotional are stored. This part of the brain is known as the amygdala.

Not everyone reacts in the same way to the same taboo words because the way their amygdala reacts upon hearing it depends on the individual´s earlier memories and what associations they have made to the specific word over the years.

Is It Healthy to Swear?

Although the new search does not contradict Pinker´s earlier findings, it does shed new light on the science of swearing.

According to Byrne, we do not use so-called bad language or dirty words to offend those listening to us but, in many cases, we do so to establish camaraderie and even gain credibility in our social or professional circles. So, some of the benefits of swearing are obvious at least for many people, and not always in the highest echelons of politics and, more generally, anyone with any real power in society.

She makes a distinction between two kinds of swearing, talking about propositional and non-propositional swearing. According to Byrne, propositional wearing is always planned and, therefore, deliberate, while, non-propositional swearing includes utterances expressing surprise or when we are among close friends.

This distinction is useful because it can be surmised from it that when a public figure, such as a politician, swear in a public forum this may very well be part of a plan to ingratiate him or herself with the audience (often, supporters of the public figure in question).

Despite the received knowledge that swearing is a sign of poor intelligence and that its use diminishes the speaker´s credibility, Byrne’s study shows that this is not the case. They are psychological reasons why if the swearing is that with a planned purpose and delivered to the right people at the right time, in the right context, it can be highly effective. Because the thing about cuss-words is that, as science has demonstrated, they are powerful. They just need to be used smartly and they can have a positive effect. Swearing can make an argument of any sort more persuasive.

But swearing is not just about intent or whether it is planned or not, differences have also been observed by scientists along gender lines. Louisiana State University sociology professor and researcher Robert O´Neil conducted a study back in 2001 that showed that people react differently to swearing my men and women. Generally, swearing is better received by mixed audiences when it is done by a man. Swearing fits into general ideas about masculinity. This study is mentioned in Byrne’s new book.

There is a more superficial benefit to swearing when we use it in stressful and painful situations. In those situations, our health could resent itself if we repress the pain we are feeling. If we swear, we help relieve some of the stress we are feeling, which could impact our health positively or, at least, reduce the negative effects caused by the pain we are feeling at that time.