In at least 5 sources yesterday, including the evening news (i.e. it broke out into mainstream media) I heard about a study that claims that swearing reduces pain. The study, to be published by researchers at Keele University in the journal NeuroReport August 5, asked students to place their hand in ice water and repeat either neutral words or explicatives. The swearing group both lasted longer and reported less pain.
I don’t find the results that novel. Anyone who has stubbed their toe in polite company can attest to the fact that having to grin and bear it is much worse than being able to run around, curse for a while, and be done with it. Of course such an anecdote doesn’t count as science and so a real study shows us that there is a definite effect, but not one I find to be deserving of the press it seems to be getting.
There seems to be two reasons people find this interesting:
- “People get to drop the F bomb for science!?!?!?!?”
- “Can I use this to swear and get away with it?”
Neither of these have to do with the science, or the interesting questions raised about the role swearing actually plays in psychology and culture. While the researchers get attention, it is for the wrong reasons. They are looking for why swearing exists. The media wants to know how the knowledge can be used.
Compare article titles from two science news outlets:
One does it right, reports the science and results of the study. The other takes those results out of context, suggesting (in step with the evening news I caught) that one should change their habits in order to lessen pain, which has little to do with the actual study results.
I’m always disappointed to see that the only science stories to make the popular press so often just miss the point all together. There are even interesting stories to be told, but the press takes the low road and almost says “Stave off cancer by cussing everyday!”
Argh. I need some amusement, so I’ll end off with a classic internet meme, which couldn’t be more appropriate. To all the kids out there, earmuffs! This is time for grown-up talk.
Bonus irony: Note the spelling of “incompetence” at 1:55. Yes, I notice because I’m anal about stuff like that.