Encouraging words can have powerful effects.
For instance, halftime inspirational pep talks by sports coaches are famous for getting athletes to improve their performance.
But now medical researchers have found that other types of words can help you alter your own physiology and brain function. They can make you measurably stronger and less susceptible to the debilitating effects of pain.
So what are these magic words? Prepare to be surprised. . .
According to these scientists, the magic words that can improve your muscle power and tolerance for pain are. . .swear words. Studies show that, used at the proper moments, swearing can increase your strength along with your ability to withstand discomfort. And the effect has been measured in the lab.
When researchers at Keele University in England tested bicyclists pedaling furiously on exercise bikes, they found that when the athletes swore they improved their endurance for going all out during a sprint. And then when the researchers tested the strength of people’s hand grip, they found that swearing also ups grip strength.1
Other studies have found the same thing applies to pain – showing there’s a good analgesic reason people cuss and shout when they hurt themselves.
For example, in further research at Keele, a test of how long folks could keep their hands submerged in painfully cold water indicated that cursing at the hurt reduces the perception of discomfort and increases the ability to withstand the pain for a longer time.2
An Unsolved Mystery, and Another Weird Benefit
But there’s one big mystery about these increases in power. It’s not clear why they occur.
“So quite why it is that swearing has these effects on strength and pain tolerance remains to be discovered,” admits researcher Richard Stephens. “We have yet to understand the power of swearing fully.”
Another intriguing characteristic researchers have linked to swearing is honesty.
According to a study coordinated among institutions in the US, England and Hong Kong, people who indulge in profanity lie less often.
These scientists point out that although using swear words can be inappropriate in many circumstances, nowadays this type of language is often employed by performers to win over audiences and be entertaining.
Says researcher David Stillwell, who teaches at the University of Cambridge, “The relationship between profanity and dishonesty is a tricky one. Swearing is often inappropriate but it can also be evidence that someone is telling you their honest opinion. Just as they aren’t filtering their language to be more palatable, they’re also not filtering their views.”
Naughty Words, Greater Honesty
In one part of these tests, more than 270 people were quizzed about their use of swear words. This part of the study showed extra swear words were connected to language patterns that indicate greater honesty.
And in another section of the research, the scientists analyzed data from 75,000 Facebook users and again found that use of more profanity was linked to language patterns reflecting honesty.3
The study also found that people living in the northeast part of the country – including Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey and New York – swear a lot more often than folks in the southeast – including South Carolina, Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi.
Now, I’m not telling you to go around swearing 24/7. As a matter of fact, that can be counterproductive. According to another study at Keele, if you swear too much, the habit loses its effectiveness as a painkiller and strength enhancer.4
So you should probably save your swear words for those special occasions when the hammer lands on your finger or you’re trying to open one of those tightly sealed jars that just won’t give. Though you’ll still need a painkiller, of course, if the pain persists.