I swear I’m telling you the truth

Sir Bob Geldof’s penchant for the odd swearword or two, might be a shrewder oratory strategy than we realise. Eric Rassin and Simon Van Der Heijden at Erasmus University in The Netherlands report evidence that people are more likely to rate a statement as believable when it contains swearwords.

First Rassin and Van Der Heijden asked 76 students whether they thought the inclusion of swearing in a statement would increase its credibility or reduce it. Forty-six per cent said it wouldn’t make any difference, 36 per cent thought it would make a statement less credible, and only 16 per cent thought it would increase a statement’s credibility.

But then the researchers asked 70 students to read a fictional account of a statement made by a suspect burglar during a police interview. The 35 students who read the version in which the suspect swore rated his statement as more believable than the 35 students who read a version that was identical in every respect but with the swearwords removed.

In a further study, 54 students read a statement made by an alleged robbery victim. Again, the students who read the version in which the victim swore rated his statements as more believable than the students who read a version without swearwords.

“If one wants to appear more credible, it is recommendable to utter an occasional swearword”, the researchers advised. Quite what my former Headmaster would make of this research, I’m not sure. He once admonished a hushed school assembly that by swearing “you merely belittle yourselves”.

Rassin, E. & Van Der Heijden, S. (2005). Appearing credible? Swearing helps! Psychology, Crime & Law, 11, 177-182.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.