Each culture has its agreed-upon list of taboo words and it doesn’t matter how many times these words are repeated, they still seem to retain their power to shock. Scan a human brain, swear at it, and you’ll see its emotional centres jangle away.
Recent research has shown that this emotional impact can have an analgesic effect, and there’s other evidence that strategically deployed swear words can make a speech more memorable. But it’s not all positive. A new study suggests that swear words have a dark side. Megan Robbins and her team recorded snippets of speech from middle-aged women with rheumatoid arthritis, and others with breast cancer, and found those who swore more in the company of other people also experienced increased depression and a perceived loss of social support.
The sample sizes were small (13 women with rheumatoid arthritis and 21 women with breast cancer), but the technology was neat. The women wore “an electronically activated recorder” that periodically sampled ambient sounds, including speech. A lapel microphone recorded 50s every 18 minutes over two weekends for the arthritis sample and 50s every 9 minutes over one weekend for the breast cancer patients. Two months or four months after baseline the women repeated measures of their depression and perceived social support – the latter measured by agreement with statements like “I get sympathy and understanding from someone”. The key finding is that higher rates of swearing in someone else’s company, but not solitary swearing, were associated with an increase in depression symptoms and a drop in perceived social support. Moreover, statistical analysis suggested the effect of swearing on depression was mediated by the lost social support.
“This is one of the first studies to provide evidence of how swearing is implicated in the coping process,” the researchers concluded. “It highlights a potential cost of swearing – that it can undermine psychological adjustment, possibly via repelling emotional support.”
The study has its limitations, as the researchers acknowledged. For example, the methodology doesn’t allow an alternative causal direction to be ruled out. Perhaps diminishing support or increasing depression provoked some of the women into swearing more. In that sense it was a shame the researchers weren’t able to look for changes in rates of swearing. Another important limitation is the sample – perhaps swearing by middle-aged women has an adverse effect on their social support because of society norms, which dictate that women, especially of a certain age, shouldn’t swear. The same study performed with young men may have produced a different result. “Swearing may even serve a bonding function among men, or younger people, and in different contexts,” the researchers said.
Robbins, M., Focella, E., Kasle, S., López, A., Weihs, K., and Mehl, M. (2011). Naturalistically observed swearing, emotional support, and depressive symptoms in women coping with illness. Health Psychology DOI: 10.1037/a0023431