Swearing Relieves Pain

Many of us are accustomed to following up a jammed toe, a burned finger, or heck, even a paper cut with a four letter expletive. Ever wonder why? Because it helps relieve pain! According to British researchers, this might be the result of an evolutionary “reflex.”

Most animals in pain (ie, if you’ve stepped on your pet’s tail) let out a vocal expression of their discontentment. Humans are the same except, as Harvard psychologist Steven Pincker notes, “in humans our vocal tract has been hijacked by our language skills.” The result? We say words which convey negative feelings. Enter the four-letter expletives.

What I disagree with is the experimental design used to test this hypothesis. Time’s article on this same topic briefly describes the set up:

To figure out why, psychologists at Britain’s Keele University recruited 64 college students and asked them to stick their hands in a bucket of ice water and endure the pain for several minutes. One group was allowed to repeat a curse word of their choice continuously while their hands were in the water; another group was asked to repeat a non-expletive control word, such as that which might be used to describe a table. The result was that swearing not only allowed students to withstand the discomfort longer, but also reduced their perception of pain intensity. Curse words, the study found, help you cope.

My first thought – “as if college students aren’t already conditioned to swear excessively in any and all situations.” Ever seen a five year old in pain? They tend to yell more civilized expressions: “OW!”, “OUCH!”, “WAHHH, MOMMY! I GOT HURTED!” 😥

Heh, it’s an interesting relationship nevertheless. 😀 We take it for granted, but a lot of our reactions to situations are highly driven by evolutionary imperative.

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