Mike the Psych's Blog

What if psychologists ruled the world? In real life?


Swearing has its plus side

As someone who doesn’t swear a lot and gets a bit embarrassed when I hear young women using profanities I was surprised to read some of the latest research on this subject.

Researchers have discovered that as much as fine words might inspire you actually swearing gives you strength.

Psychologists led by Richard Stephens from Keele University measured people’s grip strength and exercise bike performance. They found they did better if they were allowed to swear at the researchers while doing it. 

Stephens wanted to investigate the power of swearing as “there are strong links between swearing and emotional arousal” and wanted to see how deep the links went. Earlier research had found that people resisted pain better if they were allowed to swear.

In his pain research he had people holding their hand in iced water for as long as they could. They were allowed to repeat a swear word of their choice or a neutral word. Those swearing lasted longer but their heart rate increased. He wondered whether it was connected to the fight or flight response in which case they might also be stronger when swearing as they prepared themselves for action.

So swearing during the strength tests proved effective – but there was no evidence of a fight or flight response. However swearing lessens pain and when people felt less pain they were stronger.

Stephens wonders whether or not the fact that the people in the experiment knew the words were taboo but said them anyway somehow loosened up their constraints and let them go for it a bit more.

So expect more cursing down the gym any day now!

And in a completely different field of endeavour, book publishing, it seems that they have overcome the traditional reluctance to use swear words on the cover of their books. Because they sell more!

Last year there were 181 titles with the F word in the title, three times more than the previous year. And titles with the word shit in them have doubled (so have shit titles in my view but that’s another story).

So you can buy cookbooks, style books, colouring books and self-help manuals all featuring the F word.

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Money makes the pain go away

Literally. Researchers have discovered that money gives people inner strength and can reduce their emotional and physical pain. Even thinking about it works.

We know swearing helps you withstand pain as does looking at attractive women but it also seems that having cash in hand  can have the same effect.

Researchers at the University of Minnesota asked subjects to count either money or slips of paper before putting their hands in extremely hot water or playing a computer game that was rigged so that they  would be excluded by other players.

When asked to rate either their pain level or feeling of exclusion those who had counted money felt significantly less pain and less excluded.

It also works in reverse. They asked people to either write down all their expenses for the previous month or record the weather. When they put them into the hot water or gaming scenarios afterwards the ones who had recorded their expenses felt more physical and emotional pain.

So having money makes you feel strong whilst lacking it makes you feel weak. It also makes you want to work alone and sit further away from other people (when they had cash on screen savers compared to tropical fish), not ask for help, and be less helpful. It also makes people want to spend their leisure time alone rather than with friends.

They also found that people became more self-sufficient because of money –  even Monopoly money or screen savers showing cash made people work harder to achieve their goals, even when given impossible tasks. They were more focused and less distracted and hence more productive.

This only seems to work with money – not other expensive items such as jewellery. The researchers suggest that people should be rewarded in cash rather than bank payments; people complaining at customer services would be happier to be given real money rather than a voucher.

It gives the phrase “cash in hand” a whole new meaning.

Source: HBR March 2010


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I’m stressed – gaze into my eyes

Researchers at the University of Trier in Germany have discovered that stressed men prefer women who look nothing like them whilst unstressed men prefer women who have similar features.

Something to do with evolution and genetic diversity in the face of risky environments –  expanding the gene pool for stronger offspring (but of course the vikings knew that when they went off to do a bit of pillaging).

It’s also been found that men flinch less when subjected to sudden bursts of noise when looking at someone they are attracted to. A good reason to have attractive dental nurses I would have thought.

Updated 1 October 2010: Researchers at Keele University who discovered that people could cope for longer with pain when they were swearing (as opposed to using neutral words) have been awarded the Ig Nobel prize by Harvard University. These awards recognise research that makes you laugh – then think, so not completely bad science.

Perhaps on that basis Gordon Ramsay, who had been recorded at 3 swear words a minute over a 100 minutes, should be totally pain free?