Friday Weird Science: That MotherF**king HURTS!!!

Oct 15 2010 Published by under Friday Weird Science

This Friday we are continuing coverage of the most recent IgNobel prizes, those awesome prizes given to celebrate the truly odd, yet wonderful findings in scientific research. Sci LOVES these prizes. In fact, someday I want to be invited, so I can LIVE BLOG these prizes. Interview the winners! Have hilarious conversations! YES! You should ALL tell the IgNobel people that SCI IS YOUR WEIRD BLOGGER OF CHOICE!!! IgNobel people! OVER HERE!!! *waves arms*

Anyway, this paper was one of my personal favorites to win the IgNobel, partly because it's hilarious, and partly because...well, it's kind of useful! And it's actually an experiment that you could probably conduct in a college (I guess high schools might have issues with this) laboratory and look at the results. Wouldn't that be COOL?! Stephens, Atkins, Kingston. "Swearing as a response to pain" NeuroReport, 2009.

As you might know, most languages and cultures have swear words (or as we from the South like to call them, cuss words). There are lots of reasons people swear, we usually start off being shocking, and after a while it just becomes habit. Like the great Yoda once sort of kind of said "being shocking lets of steam, letting off steam leads to habit, and habit...leads to Physioprof".

But there's no denying that swearing is usually deemed inappropriate for at least some kinds of society (like, you know, 5 year olds, your grandmother, etc). So people wonder what USE swearing has in certain contexts. Like, say, in pain. Why do people swear when they are in pain? Whatever happened to "ouch"? Or "AAAAARRRRRGHHHHHH".

Well, these authors hypothesized that swearing as related to pain was actually a maladaptive response, one that occurred because, at the time of the pain, negative thoughts and emotions come to the fore. So they thought that swearing while someone was in pain would make the perception of the pain worse, making people more intolerant to pain. But of course, being scientists, you have to TEST it first.

So they took 67 undergrads, and exposed them to cold-pain. This is where you basically hold your hand in a bucket of ice water. I have done this before, and it's really pretty unpleasant, but obviously can't hurt you. While the students had their hands submerged, they were allowed to repeat a word over and over. The word was either their swear word of choice, or a word they would use to describe a table. The scientists then measured how long the students could keep their hands under the water, and then asked how they would rate the pain. The hypothesis was that, if the students were swearing, they were being more negative, and would be able to tolerate less pain, and rate the experience as more painful.

And boy were THEY surprised!

You can see above three different measures. On the far left is how long men and women lasted in the cold water, in the middle is how bad they rated the pain, and on the right is their change in heart rate, all for either the swearing or the non-swearing condition.

So it turns out that swearing actually LESSENS PAIN! The authors hypothesize that this might be related to an emotional release, which also results in an increase in heart rate.

I'm not really sure about this. I actually think they needed another condition. In this study, the students maintained the same pace and volume of word repetition, whether they were saying 'f**k' or 'table'. If the hypothesis about emotional release is the case, I think it might actually be more useful to add in changes in volume, to see if louder expressions help, and to also add in just an incoherent "ARGH" at various volumes, to see if volume and heartrate, and possibly emotional expression are related.

But regardless, this study shows that there's something to be said for expressing your pain. This could be useful for many people in response to acute pain, from stubbing your toe to giving birth, as long as you need pain relief. So don't be afraid to cuss when it hurts, and if people look askance, show them this study! After all, it won an IgNobel.

Stephens, R., Atkins, J., & Kingston, A. (2009). Swearing as a response to pain NeuroReport DOI: 10.1097/WNR.0b013e32832e64b1

13 responses so far

  • Azkyroth says:

    Is it heavy enough to bludgeon people with when they whine at me for swearing or expressing anger or frustration when I hurt myself?

  • gv says:

    Don't those graphs also show that the higher pain threshold of women doesn't actually exist?

    • scicurious says:

      Well, I don't actually know if that applies here. There are different types of pain where men and women might differ (visceral pain probably being the one that people are interested in). In addition, there are enough sociological factors here (it's escapable pain, you can take your hand out at any time, why should you keep it in and try to feel all hardcore, maybe guys are more likely to do that in this situation), that I (and the study authors) wouldn't draw anything from it.

      As to the idea of a higher pain threshold in women, I've never seen a paper on that, so I don't actually know if it exists.

    • scicurious says:

      Ok, gv, you made me curious so I did a Pubmed search. I found a couple of reviews (, most of which show that women are in fact more sensitive to pain that men (in terms of not tolerating as high pain thresholds), but there is a paper that has shown that women may habituate to pain more than men (, though that may have been discredited). There are also sex differences in how men and women respond to pain killers ( though the results are inconsistent.

      So, basically, I still don't know. And regardless, any studies that you run in humans are going to have a lot of sociological factors, it may be more socially acceptable for a woman to talk about and admit feeling pain, and it may be more socially acceptable for a woman to take painkillers.

      However, there ARE studies in RATS (which gets rid of the sociological factors). One study I found ( showed that females are more sensitive to cold pain, while males are more sensitive to heat pain. we also know that female rats respond differently to drugs like morphine depending on the estrous phase ( So this clearly needs more work in humans, to eliminate sociological factors and to look at the effects of painkillers.

      • scicurious says:

        OH OH ALSO. We should ask Juniorprof. I hear he has a degree in this stuff. 🙂

      • GotTheBlues says:

        Notice that most pain research in rats is done on males, unless the investigators are specifically looking for sex differences. In rats (haven't done lit search for human studies), pain responses (visceral and somatic) are very much influenced by the estrous cycle. Hormone administration also has quite an impact (lit search will turn up a lot of sources, but we do some of this in our lab).

  • Pascale says:

    I used this method during the birth of my children. Far more effective than that breathing they teach, although my hubby was embarrassed.

  • Rorschach says:

    I'm surprised no one has commented that the Mythbusters did something almost identical to this a year or two ago. They brought in volunteers who were asked to submerge their hands in ice-cold water. They were allowed to cuss, or to use random words of their choice. The results seemed to indicate that the cussing group lasted longer than the polite group, though I don't recall if they had enough subjects to make any kind of attempt at statistical hypothesis testing.

  • becca says:

    I do think that you can draw a conclusion about gender from these data though- swearing helps women MORE.
    When my friend was giving birth, her nurse scolded her for swearing- it's a rather awful story. I feel rather strongly that you should have to pass a test on those figures before you get to be any kind of healthcare professional.

  • Dee says:

    When giving birth, I was keening -- the new delivery nurse entered the room, settled in with her mouth next to my ear and hissed "Shut UP" How satisfying a good F-U would have been at that moment, but I was focused on the business at hand. I excused myself and delivered the baby.

  • [...] evident from some blog posts (see the excellent posts at Neurophilosophy, Neuroanthropology, and Neurotic Physiology) that quite a bit of online buzz was generated around the paper around its publication in 2009, [...]

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