The power of the bad word, which makes us feel better and makes us more persuasive

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A bad word, once in a while, is a real panacea. It helps to bear pain, relieve stress, build and strengthen interpersonal relationships and, even, in some cases, to be more persuasive. Research confirms this Richard Stephens, psychologist and professor at Keele University in England, and his colleagues: together they examined and compared 100 articles academics (including their own research) – from different disciplines – on the consequences of cursing. The results of their review were published in the scientific journal Lingua.

The effect on whoever says them

Swear words are often understood as one form of catharsis (and, for speakers of more than one language, the sense of release is almost always more intense if one curses in the mother tongue) and arouse emotions, the intensity of which can be measured by increased sweating and heart rate. According to neuroscientific research, the action of yelling may be located in different parts of the brain than other speech regions. In particular, it could activate parts of the limbic system, deep structures involved in aspects of memory and emotion processing, difficult to inhibit. This could explain why even those who have suffered brain damage and, as a result, struggle to speak, still manage to swear.

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Laboratory experiments also show the cognitive effects of swear words, which attract attention and are also remembered better than other words. But they also interfere with the cognitive processing of other words and stimuli: swearing can sometimes even get in the way of thinking.

However, at least sometimes, profanity seems to be helpful. In experiments where people were asked to dip a hand in the icy water, cursing produced a certain relief. Studies confirm that saying a bad word while in pain helps raise the pain threshold. Other research has also found an increase in physical strength in people who had just said a bad word.

their social function

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Swearing also affects our relationships with others. Research in the fields of communication and linguistics has shown a series of social purposes of the profanity: to express aggression, to offend, but also to sanction a social bond, to make humour, to narrate a story with greater intensity. Bad language can even help us show trust in ourselves, as well as increasing attention and control over other people. According to some research, swearing is perceived as a means of conveying authority and urgency in professional and managerial contexts.

According to Stephens, the social power of profanity comes from the fact that it is frowned upon in many professional and social contexts: it may seem, therefore, a very intimate and authentic expression. “The idea is that if someone is talking and swearing, he is communicating in an unfiltered way,” explains the author. “He’s not worrying about how he looks and so, in theory, this makes you think you’re dealing with an honest person.”

Not always, though. The effect «it seems to depend on what one’s initial beliefs arebecause if you strongly disagree with someone and that person starts swearing, that’s one more reason to keep disagreeing.”

Why are they so powerful?

But where does the power of the vulgar lexicon come from? Not by the meaning, nor by the sound of the terms: words with the same meaning (but neutral) or similar sound do not have such a profound effect. One explanation is the “aversive conditioning” (the use of punishment, which we experienced in childhood, when a bad word escaped us), which may have established – since we were children – a visceral connection between the swearing and the emotional response. But there are almost no empirical results confirming this theory.

There is also another hypothesis. “We think it’s possible that cursing highlights one memory pattern similar to that of music: we remember and like best the songs we listened to during our adolescence», write the authors. “That’s because, like music, swearing perhaps takes on a new meaning in adolescence. It becomes an important way to respond to the intense emotions we tend to have during this period and an act that marks independence from parents and connection with friends. Thus, profanity and songs used during this period can be forever linked to important and highly memorable experiences.”

A diminishing power

Be warned, though: swearing has diminishing power. Those who swear every day – the researchers say – get the least benefit. So it’s good not to overdo it.

More stories from Vanity Fair that may interest you:

Coprolalia, causes and symptoms of an embarrassing and difficult to manage behavior disorder

A bad word at work? It can help you make a career

Swear words, whoever says them could be more honest, happy and healthy

Source: Vanity Fair

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