Why Foul Mouths Might Finish First

New research shows that a well-timed ‘F-bomb’ might be the difference between winning and losing.

Swear words exist in every culture and language. These taboo terms for bodily functions, sexual acts, and holy matters serve many purposes: to shock, to amuse, to express strong emotion, and even to create close bonds. Now a team of researchers from the UK and the United States have shown a direct relation between swearing and physical strength.

In two experiments conducted on opposite sides of the Atlantic, the researchers put volunteers through rigorous physical tests, once while saying inoffensively bland words like “flat” and “round,” and a second time while saying the F-word literally every three seconds.

As reported last week at the British Psychological Society annual conference, when participants swore, they boosted their strength and overall physical performance by five percent or more.

David Spierer is a former professor of exercise science at Long Island University who conducted the US swearing experiments in which 29 young men and women were put through the grueling Wingate Anaerobic Test. For 30 agonizing seconds, participants pedaled as hard and fast as they could on a stationary bike set to maximum resistance for their body weight.

“This test is not for everybody,” Spierer said. He remembers giving the Wingate test to college hockey players a few years ago. “After doing two of these tests in a row, 70 percent of them threw up.”

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In Spierer’s swearing study, participants had to do the stationary bike test two separate times — once while swearing and once without swearing — with lots of rest in between. Spierer randomized the order so that half of the participants swore the first time and the other half swore the second. In the swearing round, participants were prompted to look at a timer and repeat the F-word precisely every three seconds at a “regular” volume — neither yelling nor whispering.

When swearing, participants pushed themselves to 570 watts on the bike test, a five percent increase on average over their peak non-swearing performance.

The UK swearing study produced nearly identical results, this time with an isometric handgrip that measures hand strength in kilograms. That study was lead by Richard Stephens, a psychologist and professor at Keele University. Stephens and colleagues already proved in 2009 that swearing increases our resistance to pain, reporting that students could hold their hand in a bucket of ice water 40 seconds longer on average if they were allowed to cuss.  

In the handgrip experiments, swearing students squeezed up to 2.14 kilograms harder on average than when they said only neutral words — an eight percent increase. That might explain why a murmured “son of a…” does the trick when prying the lid off of a jam jar.

Spierer and Stephens had a hunch going into the experiments that swearing would boost physical performance, but their hypothesis explaining the phenomenon proved wrong. Their initial theory was that swearing triggered the so-called fight-or-flight response, raising heart rates and temporarily elevating speed and strength.

But the test results came back negative. While physical performance was markedly improved when swearing, heart rates and skin conductance — sweat levels on the skin surface that increase under stress or arousal — were the same as the non-swearing rounds.

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If it isn’t a fight-or-flight response, then why does swearing boost our powers? Spierer and Stephens’s latest theory is that the taboo act of swearing distracts us from the pain and embarrassment of exerting ourselves to the fullest. It isn’t a purely physiological effect, but also a psychological one.

“When individuals were cursing, they were just less inhibited. And when they were less inhibited, that may have had some kind of analgesic effect,” said Spierer. “It may have had a pain reducing effect, or an ‘I don’t care’ effect, or an ‘I’m going to push through this because I get to curse while I’m doing it.’ And that’s where the psychology comes into play. The psychology of cursing allowed for the physiology of the performance spike during the test.

It’s an interesting idea, that breaking a taboo lowers inhibitions and allows for full-throttle physical performance. But isn’t the very act of repeatedly saying the F-word in front of your professor and a lab full of assistants embarrassing enough in itself to cancel out the positive “disinhibitory” effects?

There was certainly a degree of embarrassment at first, Spierer said. But, he added, once participants got on the bike and started pedaling against the brutal resistance, that all went out the window.

"They were happy to curse," he said, "and fine with it.”

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