Category: Language

Booty more amusing than ass, according to first in-depth study of the funniness of English words

GettyImages-484958654.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

When I was at primary school, we used to type out the word “BOOBIES” using upside-down digits on our electronic calculators and we thought it was hilarious. This was an all-boys school in the late 80s, cut us some slack. And anyway, maybe we weren’t so daft. The word (although spelt differently as “Booby”) was among the top-three most funny words as identified in a new paper in Behaviour Research, which is the first in-depth investigation of the perceived funniness of individual English words.

Among the 5000 words that were studied, Booty was rated the funniest of all, scoring 4.32 on average on a scale from 1 (not funny at all) to 5 (most funny). The lowest scoring word was Rape with an average of 1.18. The researchers Tomas Engelthaler and Thomas Hills at the University of Warwick, England hope their findings will provide a useful resource, a “highly rudimentary ‘fruit fly’ version” of humour” for researchers studying the psychology of what makes us laugh.

Continue reading “Booty more amusing than ass, according to first in-depth study of the funniness of English words”

Could the way we talk to children help them remember their science lessons?

Little scientistBy Christian Jarrett

When a parent asks their child plenty of “who?”, “what?”, “when?”, “where?”, “why?” questions, encourages them to go into detail and includes open-ended questions, psychologists call this an elaborative style. Past research has shown that children with parents like this tend to remember more experiences from their lives (the opposite parental style is to ask fewer questions in general, and to ask questions that only need a short, basic response). More specific studies have found that parents’ elaborative chat can also help their children remember museum visits.

A new study in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology is the first to apply this line of research to young children’s memories of a recent science lesson. The findings provide tentative evidence that conversing with a child in an elaborative way could help them remember more about their lesson.

Continue reading “Could the way we talk to children help them remember their science lessons?”

Why conservatives like to use nouns more than liberals do

Noun conceptBy Christian Jarrett

Our political leanings to the right or left reveal a fundamental aspect of our psyche: how much we’re drawn to stability and security versus change and uncertainty. This manifests in our attitudes and personality traits. For instance, on average, conservatives tend to prefer established hierarchy and are more conscientious. Liberals favour equality and are more open to new experiences. Now in the journal Political Psychology a group led by Aleksandra Cichocka at the University of Kent has extended this line of work by showing the link between political orientation and desire for certainty is reflected at even the most basic of levels: how much we like to use nouns.

Across two initial studies, featuring Polish-speaking survey participants in Poland and Arabic-speaking participants in the Lebanon, the research showed that people with more socially conservative leanings tended to favour nouns over adjectives. For instance, participants with a conservative orientation were more likely to say they’d choose to end the sentence “Magda had no doubts about the success of her business. Magda …” with the noun phrase “is an optimist” than with the adjective phrase “is optimistic”.

This fits with the established link between having a conservative orientation and desiring stability because using a noun to describe someone implies more certainty and permanence about their state of being (past research has shown that even five-year-olds infer more permanence from noun descriptions than adjectival descriptions). Indeed, in the new surveys, the link between conservatism and noun preference seemed to be explained by participants’ relative “need for structure” with high scorers on this measure expressing a dislike of ambiguity.

Cichocka and her colleagues, including John Jost at New York University who is responsible for much of the research in this field, also analysed 101 key speeches delivered by 13 US Presidents, from Roosevelt’s Inaugural Address through to Obama’s State of the Union Address in 2014. They found speeches by Republican presidents featured a greater proportion of nouns compared with their Democrat counterparts.

Overall, the researchers said their results “are compatible with previous work suggesting that language reflects, among other things, the individual’s goals and motives, including his or her political goals.”

On the Grammar of Politics—or Why Conservatives Prefer Nouns

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

Why it’s hard to talk and make eye contact at the same time

By Christian Jarrett

When someone’s talking to you, have you noticed how they seem to keep breaking off eye contact, as if finding it hard to both talk and look you in the eye at the same time? Similarly, when you’re explaining something to someone or telling them a story, do you find yourself looking away from their eyes, so that you can concentrate on what you’re saying? A pair of Japanese researchers say that this happens because eye contact has a “unique effect” on our “cognitive control processes”. Essentially, mutual gaze is so mentally stimulating that it can be tricky to think straight and maintain eye contact at the same time.

Continue reading “Why it’s hard to talk and make eye contact at the same time”

Broca and Wernicke are dead – it’s time to rewrite the neurobiology of language

By Christian Jarrett

Flick through any neuropsychology textbook and you’ll hear about the nineteenth century pioneers Paul Broca and Carl Wernicke, who showed that language production and comprehension are subserved by two distinct brain regions, which came to be known as Broca’s and Wernicke’s area, respectively. You’ll learn too about another neurology pioneer, Norman Geschwind who described how these two regions are joined by a key connective tract – the arcuate fasciculus.

This is the “Classic Model” of the neurological basis of language function – a revolution in our understanding at the time, and hugely influential to this day. But according to a compelling new paper in Brain and Language, the Classic Model is obsolete and no longer fit for purpose. What’s more, its legacy and the continued use of its terminology is hampering progress in the field, in terms of research and medical practice. Continue reading “Broca and Wernicke are dead – it’s time to rewrite the neurobiology of language”

Brain scan study reveals dogs attend to word meaning, not just intonation

By guest blogger Sofia Deleniv

Imagine if we could capture the words of an angry dog owner holding a chewed-up shoe – “How could you? You terrible dog!” – and digitally alter the tone to sound praising. Would the dog be oblivious to the reprimanding content of the message? I should admit that, until quite recently, I thought that the answer was yes ­– that no matter how chastising the words you used, you could convince a dog that it is being showered in praise, simply by adopting an affectionate tone. But a recent study published in Science indicates that many of us might be vastly underestimating canine listening skills. The findings reveal that dogs do not rely exclusively on intonation when judging the reward value of human speech, but that they also recognise the meanings that we assign to words. Continue reading “Brain scan study reveals dogs attend to word meaning, not just intonation”

Killer wives are “wicked”, killer husbands are “stressed” –uncovering the sexism in judges’ closing remarks

Judges are not perfect, but we expect them to approach their cases clinically and with detachment, interpreting them on their merits, uninfluenced by stereotypes around skin colour, age, or … gender.

Unfortunately, a new study in Psychiatry, Psychology and Law has analysed the sentencing remarks made by judges in domestic murder cases (defined as murder between heterosexual spouses) and found that they framed killings by men in far more lenient and forgiving terms than killings by women. Continue reading “Killer wives are “wicked”, killer husbands are “stressed” –uncovering the sexism in judges’ closing remarks”

Huh? Study finds taboo billboards improve driving performance

By guest blogger Richard Stephens

The 1994 Wonderbra© billboard campaign with its distinctive “Hello Boys!” catchphrase regularly gets a mention as one of most iconic advert series of all time. Its portrayal of super model Eva Herzigova clad only in black lacey pants and gravity-defying bra is said to have sent drivers veering off the roads. However a new study published in the esteemed journal Acta Psychologica suggests that attention grabbing billboard ads may actually have the opposite effect on driving performance.

Michelle Chan and colleagues from the University of Alberta, Canada, were sufficiently concerned about the effects of driver inattention on road vehicle accident rates that they ran a study using a driving simulator in a bid to find out just what kinds of effects roadside advertising strategies might be having on drivers.

A number of psychology students took a simulated drive along a road that was largely indistinctive apart from a succession of advertising billboards. The hoardings that they drove past each depicted a single word. Some words were deliberately positive (e.g. “liberty”) while others were negative (e.g. “gloom”) and still others were chosen for their neutrality (e.g. “errand”).

Image of driving simulator taken from Chan et al 2016

Eye-catchingly, a further selection of words including “asshole”, “fuck” and “dildo” were chosen because they were taboo. As the students drove along the simulated route a computer measured and recorded how safely they were driving including their speed, lane maintenance (keeping towards the centre of the lane as opposed to drifting left or right), and use of the steering wheel.

Interestingly, on the route passing by the taboo billboards, driving performance did not worsen by any of the measures used. In fact, surprisingly, lane position actually improved. Drivers positioned the car more centrally in scenarios where the billboards at the side of the road contained taboo words like “dildo”. Not only that, but in a spot memory test after the driving tasks had been completed, the volunteers could recall more of the taboo words featured on the billboards compared with the words from the other categories. There were no effects of the other word types other than a small increase in speed (around 2 km/h) when passing by the positive words.

The improved recall of the taboo items echoes previous research showing that swear words are more memorable because they are emotionally arousing. In fact, this emotionally arousing property of taboo words seems to underlie the beneficial effects on driving performance shown in the study. The researchers suggest that the excitement aroused when we encounter a taboo stimulus – like a swear word – can trigger a response known as “cognitive tunnelling”. Effectively, this is a narrowing of the focus of attention to just one part of the visual environment.  Paradoxically this could benefit driving if attention becomes narrowly focused on just the road ahead.

Another way that taboo words on billboards could have improved car control is related to the idea of a rabbit becoming frozen in the headlights of an onrushing car. The paper cites previous research finding that viewing taboo and threatening images can bring about a suppression of the motor system. The authors suggest that any reduction in responsiveness of the musculature caused in this way might improve performance by reducing incorrect responding. However, this seems less likely to me as I would expect any suppression of mobility to impair driving rather than enhance it.

An obvious criticism of this research is that it involved naughty words, rather than risqué images, which is the issue more relevant to real life. However, the researchers point out that regions of the brain involved in processing emotion (for example the amygdala, the prefrontal cortex and the anterior temporal cortex) have been shown to become more activated in response to emotionally arousing pictures compared with emotionally arousing words, and on this basis they actually suggest that scantily clad and attractive models on billboards may well show more pronounced beneficial effects on driving because of a still-greater narrowing of drivers’ attention.

However, while this idea may hold theoretically, any benefits of cognitive tunnelling must depend on drivers quickly returning their attention back on to the road after it has been grabbed involuntarily by a provocative billboard. I predict this would be far more challenging for taboo imagery compared with taboo words. For example, a recent study found that cards players made less advantageous decisions when the backs of the cards depicted sexually explicit images as opposed to traditional card patterns.

Large amounts of planning and money are expended by companies including the makers of the Wonderbra© to make adverts as eye-catching as possible. While this study suggests these ads may unintentionally be contributing to road safety, a great deal more research is needed before anyone might recommend that transport authorities should actively encourage risqué advertising billboards on the roadside.


Chan M, Madan CR, & Singhal A (2016). The effects of taboo-related distraction on driving performance. Acta psychologica, 168, 20-6 PMID: 27136396

Post written by Richard Stephens for the BPS Research Digest. You can read more of Richard’s work in his critically acclaimed popular science book, Black Sheep The Hidden Benefits of Being Bad, available from all good book stores and online. Richard is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Keele University and Chair of the Psychobiology Section of the British Psychological Society.

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Episode 6: How To Be Sarcastic ;-)

9ed27-psychcrunch-episodesixThis is Episode 6 of PsychCrunch, the podcast from the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest, sponsored by Routledge Psychology.

Have you ever sent a sarcastic email or text message and discovered to your horror that the recipient thought you were being literal? If so, this episode is for you!


Research Digest editor Christian Jarrett speaks to Dr Ruth Filik (University of Nottingham), lead author of a recent study into how emoticons and punctuation can help you convey written sarcasm more effectively. After listening, you’ll realise those little winking faces 😉 are no laughing matter. Seriously!

Research discussed in this episode includes:

Episode credits: Presenter/editor Dr Christian Jarrett. Music and mixing Dr Catherine Loveday and Jeff Knowler. Art work Tim Grimshaw.

Subscribe and download via iTunes.
Subscribe and download via Stitcher.

Previous episodes:
Episode one: Dating and Attraction.
Episode two: Breaking Bad Habits
Episode three: How to Win an Argument
Episode four: The Psychology of Gift Giving
Episode five: How To Learn a New Language

PsychCrunch is sponsored by Routledge Psychology.

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Why do so many people dislike the word "moist"?

By guest blogger Richard Stephens

A few years ago the New Yorker ran a social media campaign asking what word should be deleted from the English language. Nominations ranged from the political (Obama) to the superfluous (actually) and from the expression of hyperbole (awesome) to an outdated word for trousers (slacks). Intriguingly, the most popular suggestion – the so-called “runaway un-favourite” – might surprise a few people and especially those who enjoy baking.

Psychologist Paul H. Thibodeau from Oberlin College in the US has taken it upon himself to delve deeper. His amusingly titled research paper published recently in PLoS One, “A Moist Crevice for Word Aversion”, has made a case study of “Moist” – the word that the New Yorker found people most love to hate.

Thibodeau asked hundreds of volunteers recruited online in the US to rate how aversive they found various words, including moist. Verifying the results of the New Yorker campaign, he found 20 per of them disliked this specific word.  The people that were averse to “moist” gave it a 24 per cent higher unpleasantness rating than people that were not averse to it; to put this into context, this was a similar difference in how aversive people rated “fuck” compared with “delicious”.

Thibodeau tested several possible reasons for moist’s unusual unpopularity by seeing what other words were unpopular among the moist-haters. One idea is that people are averse to the word “moist” because of how it sounds. If true then people should also be averse to similar sounding words like “hoist” and “foist”, but they weren’t. This isn’t too much of a surprise given that the sounds that make up a language tend to be random, apart from a smattering of onomatopoeic words (words that convey sounds) like “splash”.

Another clue comes from the observation that “moist” can be very good in some contexts, such as when it describes the texture of the slice of cake we’ve just been served, but can be very bad in others, for example when it refers to the condition of the armpit of the person crammed next to us on the London tube. So, perhaps the word “moist” is seen as aversive because there is conflict in many people’s minds between these simultaneous strong positive and negative connotations.

Thibodeau tested this possibility by assessing how people rated “moist” on a 5-point positivity scale (from “Not at all positive” to “Very positive”) and also on a similar 5-point negatively scale (from “Not at all negative” to “Very negative”). In fact, “moist” tended to be rated around the middle of both scales rather than being very high in both as the conflicting connotations explanation would require.

Yet another possibility is that “moist” is aversive because it brings to mind unsavoury associations, such as sexual words or words connected with non-sexual bodily functions. This is actually the most promising explanation because people who were averse to the word “moist” also tended to be averse to bodily function words like “phlegm” or “puke”. But note, these same people were not usually averse to sexual words like “horny” or “pussy” suggesting that their aversion to the word “moist” was driven not by sexual prudishness but a dislike of more mundane bodily functions.

Other intriguing insights come from when Thibodeau asked people to explain their dislike of the word “moist” – whether it was the sound, the meaning, or both. Most often people indicated it was the sound of the word, at odds with the earlier finding that “hoist” and “foist” were not unpopular. That people averse to the word “moist” tended to misappropriate the source of their aversion to the sound of the word may indicate a general tendency for us not to notice when disgust colours our opinions.

On the evidence of this psychological case study of the word “moist”, aversion to certain words is unlikely to be due to the word sound even though people may mistakenly suggest otherwise. This is another example of a psychology research finding contradicting “common sense”. There was also no evidence that word aversion arises from ambiguous and conflicting word connotations. It all came down to semantics – it was the meaning of the word and its associations with other words that underlay the negative evaluation. That aversion to the word “moist” was correlated with aversion to certain revolting bodily functions, like coughing up phlegm and vomiting, suggests that we are most likely to be averse to words that are linked to unsavoury associations.  

Marketeers might want to take note, especially brands that use English names for products on sale in non-English speaking countries. Customers might be wary of Soup For Sluts instant noodles, for example, or Pee Cola fizzy drink and Deeppresso instant coffee!


Thibodeau, P. (2016). A Moist Crevice for Word Aversion: In Semantics Not Sounds PLOS ONE, 11 (4) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0153686

further reading
Why do people find some nonsense words like “finglam” funnier than others like “sersice”

Post written by Richard Stephens for the BPS Research Digest. You can read more of Richard’s work in his critically acclaimed popular science book, Black Sheep The Hidden Benefits of Being Bad, available from all good book stores and online. Richard is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Keele University and Chair of the Psychobiology Section of the British Psychological Society.

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