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We’ve all been there: you wake up in the middle of the night, stumble to the bathroom or kitchen like a zombie, when your most vulnerable toes are ambushed by cruelly placed furniture. “SHIIIIIIIT!”
But why do we leap to profanity when faced with sudden pain? Researchers at Keele University set out with the hypothesis that swearing upon pain infliction would increase pain perception and reduce pain tolerance. Instead, they found the exact opposite—when faced with pain and discomfort, our cursing is curiously cathartic.
Pain tolerance and pain perception in relation to swearing was examined with 64 students partaking the “Cold-Pressure” test. Participants were split into separate conditions, before submerging their hand in ice water for as long as possible. One condition required the student repeat a chosen swear word repeatedly, one group would repeat a “neutral word”. Those allowed to swear demonstrated significantly longer tolerance of the ice water, along with less perceived pain, and an elevated heart rate.
While the same hypothesis has been looked into by other researchers, as of yet there is no conclusive explanation why swearing reduces pain. However, it has been proposed that swearing triggers the “fight-or-flight” response, which accelerates the heart and reduces pain sensitivity.