Archives for category: Psychology

In his 1967 treatise, The Anatomy of Swearing, Montagu repeatedly makes the case that swearing, like tears and laughter, serve to release emotions and restore equilibrium. He has this to say about the social sanctions against women swearers:

“If women wept less they would swear more…many modern women have grown to be ashamed of tears and quite belligerently proud of swearing… With growing emancipation of woman from her former inferior status she has now altogether abandoned the privilege of swooning and has reduced the potential oceans of tears to mere rivulets. Today instead of swooning or breaking into tears, she will often swear and then do whatever is indicated. It is, in our view, a great advance upon the old style.”

(Emph mine.)
Can I get a “fuck yeah?”
Montagu, A., 1967. The Anatomy of Swearing, University of Pennsylvania Press.
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There have been lots of studies that show that women avoid swearing, and still more that show that they use just as many swearwords as men depending on age, social class, and whether or not they’re in mixed company. More on this anon, but it’s worth mentioning that a 1987 study by Barbara Risch uncovered one of the reasons why these studies should give such confusing results: Risch was one of the first female researchers to ask an all-female group to talk about their use of swearwords. It seems that women are more likely to swear around other women than around men so male researchers consistently underestimate women’s use of bad language!

But it seems that we still carry around the social conditioning that “nice girls” don’t swear (again, more on this anon). I wouldn’t mind so much – it can be fun to bust a stereotype with a well-timed burst of profanity – but there is a group of women for whom this belief has damaging consequences: the chronically and seriously ill.

Researchers from the University of Arizona equipped two groups of female volunteers with voice-activated recorders. One group was made up of women with the painful symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, the other group was undergoing treatment for breast cancer. The researchers wanted to know if the effect of swearing on pain tolerance meant that the women who swore more would cope better. The team decided to measure a set of other variables too, including the women’s levels of depression, and the amount of social support they received.

The researchers reached a depressing conclusion: the women who swore in front of their friends were less likely to get emotional support from their friends, and more likely to suffer depression as a consequence. The researchers ruled out the effect of different levels of pain, and they also ruled out the possibility that swearing was somehow directly linked to depression (women who swore the same amount, but on their own, retained their levels of friendship and support and suffered less depression). To be clear, these women weren’t swearing at their friends – they were mostly using bad language to vent their frustration. Nevertheless, their friends withdrew as a consequence.

The researchers pointed out that they were unlikely to have found this effect among men, where numerous studies have shown that swearing can play a role in building friendships. Specifically, women in middle age were likely to alienate the friends they needed to see them through the difficult times because they “violated gender and age norms” – or to put it simply, they didn’t behave the way their friends expected women to behave. The study, according to the authors, “highlights a potential cost of swearing – it can undermine psychological adjustment, possibly via repelling social support.” Left to cope alone, these women were more likely to struggle with depression.

So the next time you hear a female friend curse up a storm, try not to judge her by her language. She might need your support now more than ever.

ResearchBlogging.orgOr rather, I probably do…  Let me explain.

Social scientist Eric Rassin and legal scholar Simone van der Heijden of Erasmus University in the Netherlands had a question: what efect does swearing have on legal testimony? They had two equally likely hypotheses: that swearing is a sign of weakness and undermines the believability of testimony, or that swearing is a sign of heightened emotions or, as they put it, swearing indicates “that the narrator is sincerely motivated to transmit the message.” So they devised a set of experiments to see what effect swearing had on the believability of both defendant and victim testimony.

First, though, they decided to test people’s expectations. They asked 76 undergraduate students to tell them whether they thought that swearing was characteristic of lying, characteristic of truthfulness or whether it was impossible to say. Only  16 percent said they thought that swearing was a sign of credibility: 38 percent said they thought that swearing indicated deceit and 46 percent said it was impossible to tell.

But something told Rassin and van der Heijden that there was more to it than that – previous psychological studies had shown that innocent people tend to become more hostile than guilty ones when accused of a crime. Even though the students believed otherwise, was it possible that they’d react differently when faced with “real” swearing? Would they trust a swearer more, recognising that hostility is a sign of outraged innocence? Or would they continue to believe that swearing is an indication of untrustworthiness?

The researchers devised another test: they gave the students one of two (fabricated) defendant statements, identical except for the absence or presence of swearing:

Investigator: I ask you again… were you involved in the burglary in the Havenstreet last month?

Suspect: No. As I have stated ten times, I have nothing to do with that. What’s this all about? I have been in this room for two hours now. I want to go home, or I want to be allowed to talk to my attorney. What a mess.

Or

Investigator: I ask you again… were you involved in the burglary in the Havenstreet last month?

Suspect: No, God damn it. As I have stated ten times, I have nothing to do with that. What’s this all about? I have been in this shitty room for two hours now. I want to go home, or I want to be allowed to talk to my attorney. What a fucking mess.

The students were asked to rate how believable the suspect’s denial was, from 1 (not at all believable) to 10 (extremely believable). The mean score was 5.2 for the statement with the swearwords in but only 4.2 for the statement without the swearing. The difference was small but significant. It turns out that, whatever they may say that they think about swearing, a vociferous denial is more credible than an even tempered one.

Intrigued, the researchers decided to perform one last test. This time they gave the students a statement from a (fictional) victim of crime.

Victim: That man pulled my bag out of my hands and ran away. He even dragged me several metres because I wouldn’t let go of my bag. And who is going to pay for all that? I suggest that man does.

Or

Victim: That asshole pulled my bag out of my hands and ran away. He even dragged me several metres because I wouldn’t let go of my bag. God damn it. And who is going to pay for all that? I suggest that mister dirtbag* does.

Again,  a set of students ranked the credibility of the statements and again, the statement with the swearing in it was seen as significantly more credible (6.33 vs 5.11 out of 10 on average).

So it’s not just vociferous denials that are more credible. No matter what people think they think, a few oaths under oath might help!


*Possibly the epithet loses something in translation. Can any Dutch speakers help me out here? Does it sound as twee in Dutch?

Rassin, E., & Heijden, S. (2005). Appearing credible? Swearing helps! Psychology, Crime & Law, 11 (2), 177-182 DOI: 10.1080/106831605160512331329952