The things that scientists do (or persuade other people to do) for the sake of research can sometimes seem horribly sadistic.
One of my favourite nasty experimental paradigms is the “cold pressor task” – which is a fancy way of saying “keep your hand in this bucket of ice water as long as you can to see how tough you are,” or, as the authors of this study rather more professionally put it “…submerge one hand in ice-cold water until discomfort necessitates removal. Submersion latency is recorded as an index of pain tolerance.” It doesn’t sound much better, does it?
In 2009, a group of psychologists from Keele University published a study in which they looked at the effect of swearing on the experience of pain. There were two competing ideas about why we swear when we are hurt: the first is that swearing is just an (unhelpful) manifestation of the “negative thoughts and feeling” that arise when you hit your thumb with a hammer. The second is that swearing actually helps us to manage pain in some way, and that we swear as a way of making ourselves feel better.
To test this, the scientists somehow managed to persuade 67 undergraduate students to take part in their study. The students were asked to hold their hands in a bucket of ice water as long as they possibly could, not once but twice! First, though, they asked the students to give them a list of “five words you might use after hitting yourself on the thumb with a hammer” and “five words to describe a table.” One student was excluded from the experiment because none of the words they came up with was a swear word.*
The students then had to immerse their hand in room temperature water for three minutes, then into the ice cold water. In one of the trials they were asked to repeat the first of their “table words” over and over again. In the other they were asked to repeat the first word on their “hammer list.”
The results were astounding: the men kept their hands in the ice water on average 30% longer in the swearing condition, and the women kept their hands in the ice water 45% longer on average. What’s more, for the women especially, the students said that the water felt less painful when they were swearing. Interestingly, the men who reported being most scared of pain got the least benefit from the swearing condition, and would on average do better without swearing.
More experiments, and more selfless undergraduates, are needed but this study shows that for most of us, turning the air blue is an effective way of easing pain!
* Surely anyone who doesn’t swear when they hit themselves with a hammer should be the subject of an experiment in their own right!