D: When you stub your toe...
Y: Or hit your head...
D: Sometimes a swear word will slip out.
Y: Why do we do that, Don?
D: Well, Yaël, some researchers argue that it is a kind of stress-reduced analgesia.
Y: Like an analgesic, a pain reliever?
D: Right, but this doesn’t come from a drug. Stress-induced analgesia is a response in mammals that reduces pain when they experience stress or fear. Psychologists have shown that swear words may work like this; swear words can actually increase a person’s pain tolerance, by a considerable amount.
Y: Increase it compared to what?
D: Traditional swear words increase our pain tolerance but alternative swear words don’t increase our pain tolerance.
Y: Well, shoot... [BOTH CHUCKLE]. So, how did scientists find out this interesting bit of psychology?
D: Researchers at Keele University measured the pain threshold in people. They instructed each participant to hold his or her hands in an ice bath. Their pain threshold was measured by how long it took a person to feel pain; pain tolerance was measured by how long a person could keep their hand in the freezing water.
Y: And they were cursing like sailors the whole time?
D: Each participant took the challenge four times and repeated one of the test words each time. Words like “fouch” and “twizpipe” made some people laugh. But they had little effect on helping people cope with pain.
Y: But traditional swear words increased pain tolerance. Why is that?
D: Scientists are unsure of the exact reasons. They know that it isn’t the surface effect of swear words, like how they sound, that underlies stress-induced analgesia. There’s research to suggest that swearing increases pain tolerance because it triggers the fight-or-flight response and psychologically numbs pain.