Study takes on the effects of swearing and performance

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JERRY HITCHCOCK/Press Don’t say it! Or then again, maybe you should. A team of researchers has found people who swear during workouts can better cope with pain for a longer period.

Who among us would ever think swearing could have any positive effect? Apparently, that is exactly what one research team has found.

Psychologist Richard Stephens and his team at Keele University in England set out to conduct two experiments. First, they tried to determine the impact swearing had on those who used profanity immediately after being injured.

Next, they took on the notion that swearing could bring on the fight-or-flight response. While researching this, the team found evidence that swearing during physical activity showed increased physical performance, and set out to prove that cussing was the cause.

The team found that people who swore could better cope with pain for a longer period. Apparently cussing would raise the heart rate and the researchers believed this fight-or-flight response was the basis for later studies.

This led to a new study, where subjects were asked to use either a swear word or a neutral word while performing the same exercise. Participants were allowed to use their own swear word if they chose to do so.

That first test utilized 29 subjects cycling on a bike for a quick, intense period of time. Stephens’ team came to the conclusion that participants were stronger when they said a cuss work as opposed to the neutral word. The team compiled the data, and found the swearing group showed a 4 percent increase in power generated in the first five seconds, with a 2 percent increase during a 30-second interval.

Another test was conducted, this time with 52 athletes completing a handgrip test. Once again the data revealed the potty-mouths dominated their PG-rated counterparts by 8 percent.

• • •

After the tests, the team determined no data existed to support a fight-or-flight scenario brought on by swearing. Rather, the team is leaning toward the increased pain tolerance that cussing produces in a human. Pain perception is different within people — some can just take more pain and not show much outward sign of discomfort while others can be debilitated by a moderate amount of pain.

A distraction during exercise can set the body on autopilot, meaning the body keeps on performing while the mind switches from pain monitoring to observation and study modes, thus allowing the body to continue performing without a drop-off in performance due to pain perception.

Taking the findings and applying psychology, the team is betting generalized inhibition was at play. People who swear during exercise lessen their concern with the task, losing that self-consciousness.

While this study is under peer review, my own ‘research’ leads me to believe they are on the right track, in that cussing can subconsciously take you out-of-body for a short time, make you feel less pain and output a little more energy/power than you would otherwise.

• • •

We’ve all seen (and heard) the negative affects cussing can have on us and those around us. Swearing in public is by and large met with surprise and consternation. How dare someone within earshot actually say such things — don’t they know that I can hear everything they say? More often than not, they do. The swear-ee is used to showing his displeasure this way, and probably has a long pattern of such activity. Maybe they just use the occasional cuss word here and there for emphasis, or they could toss one into every sentence that comes out of their mouths.

Some people are of the mind that swearing in public makes them appear tougher, and there is a chance their own insecurities are appeased by the use of such words. And this hypothesis is what Stephens and his colleagues were looking to back up with their research.

I’d like the team to next consider whether alternative swear words have the same effect. Because you know that people within earshot would be much less offended if you shouted “Fudge!” or “Jiminy Christmas!” as opposed to, well, you know …

Returning to the psychology realm, it’s all about perception. if you think you perform better due to your lucky socks, then when you have them on, psychologically you have an edge. I can’t see someone swearing their way through a marathon or a 100-mile bike race — I think the effect would wear off fairly soon — plus chances are your competitors would do whatever it takes to get out of earshot.

Maybe there will come a time when those who hang around performers will incorporate ear plugs, allowing athletes to swear a blue streak while streaking toward the finish line.

Or better yet, maybe athletes can come up with pseudo-swear words that motivate them, while remaining meaningless to everyone else.

Just as long as “Covfefe” isn’t one of them …

• • •

Jerry Hitchcock can be reached at 664-8176, Ext. 2017, via email at, or follow him on Twitter at HitchTheWriter.

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