Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Should You Teach Your Students To Swear?

I recall training a woman and a man for one of their gradings in the Jan de Jong jujutsu grading system. The grading involved free fighting where one candidate is unarmed and the other armed with a stick. The stick is a tightly rolled up newspaper that has been completely taped. While training, the male struck the female across the thighs hard enough to produce a bruise on both her thighs. The woman proceeded to run laps around the dojo swearing like a trooper. Little did I know, at that time, that she was using an effective pain suppression technique.

Richard Stephens and Claudia Umland, School of Psychology, Keele University, have demonstrated that swearing in response to pain produces a pain lessening effect for most people. They suggest that swearing may provoke an emotional response in the speaker - possibly aggression or anger - mobilising classic fight or flight mechanisms leading to increased pain tolerance. This, they suggest, would be in keeping with the well-known stress-induced analgesia (SIA).

Stephens and Umland published a follow-up study in The Journal of Pain this year: 'This article presents further evidence that, for many people, swearing (cursing) provides readily available and effective relief from pain. However, over-use of swearing in everyday situations lessens its effectiveness as a short-term intervention to reduce pain.' The reason for this is that people who swear a lot become 'habituated' in that the emotional response becomes weaker with use, resulting in a weaker effect as pain relief.

Was the swearing the stimulus that elicited the feeling response of anger with its physiological response resulting in SIA? Or was the swearing an expressive response of anger that was elicited by the pain stimulus? Given the pain stimulus was present in both cases, it can be argued that the swearing was the stimulus that elicited the anger response. This is another example of adaptive (i.e. increasing survival) emotional manipulation.

Many women's self defence courses teach their participants to turn fear into anger. Often it is suggested that they think of the worst think the attacker can do to them and their children in order to turn fear into anger. This, of course, runs the risk of changing fear into terror when they think of the worst thing the attacker can do to them and their children. The above study suggests that another way to turn fear into anger is by swearing. This method does not run the risk of turning fear into terror.

Of course the females participating in these courses will have to be instructed to reduce their habitual swearing so they gain the survival benefits of swearing.


  1. Nice post, one concern is the swearing part - not sure I can accept that but could accept other means of expression verbally away from swearing.

  2. Swearing in a street survival situation is fine. Swearing when I hit my thumb with a hammer makes sense. But swearing in the dojo....I dunno, overall it seems uncouth to me. If I heard any of my kohai swearing like that during training I wouldn't have any reservation with correcting them.

    I'm no shrinking violet, but it just seems like sailor's language belongs outside the dojo.

  3. CJ and TSK, thanks for the comments. I agree with regards to a particular way of conducting oneself in the dojo. However, this is a judgement, and nature is truly non-judgemental. The practical benfits of swearing to reduce pain have been demonstrated. The mechanism is swearing elicits anger in the swearer. CJ, other means of expression will only produce this effect if it elicits anger in the expressioner. The pain suppression all has to do with the elicitation of emotion. What we need to understand, and reconcile, is by teaching to control emotion we are sacrificing the survival benefits bequeathed to us by nature. That is the cost. It is a hidden cost because of the not understanding of the survival benefits bestowed upon us by nature. If we teach not to access those natural survival benefits, we ought to be able to provide a cost-benefit analysis in favour of our methods. A challenging and thought provoking exercise to say the least.


Your comments make my work all the more relevant as I use them to direct my research and theorising. Thank you.