Swearing can increase self-confidence and risk-taking behavior


Keele University researchers have found that swearing can increase self-confidence and risk-taking behavior, as well as boosting physical strength.

Led by Dr. Richard Stephens, the team carried out a study which aimed to identify the psychological pathway by which swearing can have beneficial effects on physical tasks. They were particularly interested in whether swearing increased “state disinhibition,” which is a state of lowered self-control and lack of restraint.

The study, which has been published in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, found that participants could perform a chair push-up – lifting oneself from a chair seat using the arms – for longer after repeating a swear word.

Participants also displayed more risk-taking behavior in an online task involving pumping up a balloon as much as possible without it bursting. Risk-taking behavior increased by 8% when using swear words whilst pumping up the balloon, compared to using neutral dialog.

The humorous quality of swearing was also found to be an important psychological route for boosting physical strength, akin to “letting go.”

The researchers hope that this evidence can benefit society by helping individuals to improve personal performance, for example gaining increased self-confidence by using swear words as preparation for performing in front of large public audiences.

Dr. Stephens said: “Swearing appears to produce a state of ‘hot cognitions,’ helping us downplay everyday fears and concerns. This can lead to benefits in some situations, such as physical strength, shown by our participants being able to hold the chair push-up for a longer time after swearing.

“We provided evidence of several possible psychological routes by which this may come about, all related to lowering self-control or ‘letting go’ – but humor, the funny side of swearing, turned out to be the most important of the factors we assessed.

Comedians have long known the link between laughter and a well-placed swear word. Our study suggests generating humor may be one element by which swearing can help people in everyday situations, by just ‘going for it’ a little more.”

Offensive or obscene language is known as swearing in the United Kingdom and cursing in the United States (Soanes, 2002). That most languages include swear words (van Lancker & Cummings, 1999) suggests they fulfil one or more useful functions and researchers have begun to evidence a variety of beneficial effects of swearing. Repeating a swear word has been found to alleviate the physical pain of immersing one’s hand in ice cold water (Robertson et al., 2017; Stephens et al., 2009; Stephens & Robertson, 2020; Stephens & Umland, 2011) and the social pain of being ostracised (Philipp & Lombardo, 2017).

Swearing also augments persuasiveness (Scherer & Sagarin, 2006), credibility (Rassin & Heijden, 2005) and has been shown to benefit physical tasks that rely on strength and power (Stephens et al., 2018). This latter effect is the focus of the current study.

Stephens et al. (2018) found that repeating a swear word benefitted the performance of two quite different physical strength tasks: a highly intensive exercise bike-based task and a more moderate hand grip task. They found, in the swearing condition in which participants repeated a swear word during the task, average performance was improved by 4.5% on the bike task and 8% on the grip task, compared with repeating a neutral word.

The study had been designed on the assumption that swearing would increase autonomic arousal and that this increased autonomic arousal would mediate the effects of swearing on strength. However, no such autonomic activation was apparent. The authors suggested a psychological mechanism for the observed effect of swearing on strength, characterised as an increased state disinhibition wherein individuals did not hold back.

A similar suggestion was made by O’Connell et al., (2014) in their study finding that grunting helped tennis players hit the ball with greater power compared with silence (mean increase 19%–26%) and by Welch and Tschampl (2012) in their study of hand grip strength accompanied by shouting compared with silence (mean increase 7%).

This article further investigates the link between swearing, state disinhibition, and physical strength. Trait disinhibition can be defined as “a broad personality trait reflecting individual differences in self-regulation or control of one’s behaviour, tending towards under-controlled rather than over-controlled” (based on the definition by Clark & Watson, 2008, as cited in Mullins-Sweatt et al., 2019). By extension, state disinhibition can be defined as “temporarily tending towards behaviours that are under-controlled rather than over-controlled.” Hirsh et al. (2011) have suggested a model of state disinhibition based on the deactivation of Gray’s (1982) Behavioural Inhibition System (BIS).

This theoretical system, closely linked with the septal-hippocampal network, functions to interrupt ongoing behaviours where they are perceived to lead to aversive consequences, allowing cognitive control processes to be implemented with the aim of facilitating behaviours with more desirable consequences. Within this model, disinhibition can be understood as a state in which the BIS is relatively inactivated, with the consequence that the number of competing responses computed is relatively reduced, simplifying the selection and execution of one particular response.

This is contrasted with situations where the BIS is relatively activated and a larger number of competing responses are computed, making the decision of choosing one response more complex. In short, a deactivated BIS leads to reduced response conflict, simplifying decision-making.

Three routes, by which BIS activity may be reduced, leading to state disinhibition, are proposed by Hirsh et al. (2011). The first route is the greater activation of the Behavioural Activation System (BAS), the dopaminergic-mediated circuit associated with the pursuit of rewards. The BAS tends to narrow attention focus towards desired goals, reducing activation of less salient behaviours, thus reducing the activation of the conflict-related BIS. Hirsh et al. (2011) describe this as BAS-related silencing of the BIS. Interestingly, “hot cognitions,” such as sexual arousal, have been theorised to activate the BAS (Van den Bergh et al., 2008). This opens the possibility that swearing, which may be considered a “hot cognition” based on its arousing properties (Stephens & Zile, 2017), may facilitate BAS-related silencing of the BIS leading to state disinhibition. Henceforth, we refer to this as the “hot cognitions pathway” for swearing-induced state disinhibition.

The second route, by which Hirsh et al. (2011) propose BIS activity may be reduced, leading to state disinhibition, is the narrowing of attention due to reduced cognitive bandwidth. They suggest that this route underlies the disinhibitory effects of alcohol where intoxication acts to limit bandwidth by depleting cognitive resources. It is possible that swearing may similarly narrow attention through “distracting” the individual, directing attention towards processing the swear words, and reducing cognitive bandwidth as fewer of the limited attention resources are available to process competing responses.

This would theoretically lead to attention-mediated reduction in BIS activity and consequent disinhibition. Consistent with this suggestion, previous research has shown that swearing is rated as distracting (Stephens & Robertson, 2020). Henceforth, we refer to this as the “distraction pathway” for swearing-induced state disinhibition.

A third route for deactivating the BIS proposed by Hirsh et al. (2011) is a reduction in social desirability concerns. One way this can be influenced is through anonymity. Under such conditions, the BIS remains relatively inactive as there is a lesser need to calculate pro- or anti-social consequences. Consequently, there are fewer competing behaviours to work through, such that choosing an appropriate behaviour becomes relatively easier. Swearing may bring about a reduction in social desirability concerns as the act of breaking taboo may effectively obliterate such concerns, rendering them redundant.

One might describe this as a “fuck-it effect” in which breaking taboo by swearing outshines whatever social concerns were present, to the extent that these are no longer relevant. Henceforth, we refer to this as the “social desirability pathway” for swearing-induced state disinhibition.

Here we present two experiments designed to assess beneficial effects of swearing on physical strength and whether state disinhibition mediates any such effects. Given its salience in the context of swearing, Experiment 1 assessed one potential mediator variable closely linked to the hot cognitions pathway, whereas Experiment 2 assessed a wider range of potential mediator variables, mapping across the three pathways for swearing-induced state disinhibition described above: hot cognitions, distraction, and social desirability.

Experiment 1 employed the Balloon Analogue Risk Task (BART; Lejuez et al. 2002) as a behavioural measure of risky behaviour. Previous research has shown that a higher dispositional BAS correlates with more risky behaviour in terms of betting higher stakes during a slot-machine gambling task (Demaree et al., 2008).

The BART is a screen-based task requiring participants to pump up a virtual balloon. Credits are accrued for each successful pump, but there is an element of risk because any credits accrued are lost should the balloon burst. The probability that the balloon will burst increases with each pump.

The usual outcome measure of risky behaviour for this task is the average number of pumps on unexploded balloons (Lauriola et al., 2014), also known as adjusted number of pumps (Lejuez et al., 2002). The BART was chosen as it is likely to be sensitive to behavioural activation and thus elucidate influence of the hot cognitions pathway to state disinhibition described earlier. Grip strength was assessed using a hand dynamometer using the same procedure as Stephens et al. (2018).

In Experiment 1, performance of the hand grip task and the BART were assessed in a within-subjects design with the conditions: swearing, comprising repeating a self-nominated swear word, and non-swearing, comprising repeating a self-nominated neutral word. It was hypothesised that (1) repeating a swear word would benefit the performance of a physical task such that there would be a higher mean isometric hand grip force score in the swearing condition compared with the non-swearing condition; (2) that there would be an increased average number of pumps on unexploded balloons for the swearing condition compared with the neutral word condition; (3) and that the predicted beneficial effect of swearing on physical task performance would be mediated by the state disinhibition measure: average number of pumps on unexploded balloons.

reference link : https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/17470218221082657

Original Research: Closed access.
Effect of swearing on strength: Disinhibition as a potential mediator” by Richard Stephens et al. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology


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