“I thought there was a good chance that swearing would help people cope with pain, because there has to be a reason people do it,” Stephens continues. During the initial research, one hypothesis to emerge was that using obscene language was a form of catastrophizing: a cognitive distortion whereby the threat of a painful event is maximized in the mind of the sufferer. “This was the best scientific line we found,” he says. “But as we looked into swearing further, it became apparent that it’s actually emotional language, and can make you feel better in certain situations. If you’re waiting for an ambulance and have no drugs, cursing can actually reduce the feeling of pain.”
The research process involved asking participants to play video games at different levels of the emotional spectrum, and then testing their relationship with aggression and swearing after this. After playing a golf game, candidates scored lower on the swearing fluency test, only being able to recall seven expletives. But after playing a shoot-’em-up game, participants were found to have higher levels of aggression and the ability to reel off eight curses. This finding was key in proving that swearing is in fact emotional language, and can serve an important purpose in both conveying certain emotions and acting as a coping mechanism for discomfort.