Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, May 6, 2017


I'm kind of notorious for my inappropriate vocabulary, a habit I can at least in part blame on my dad, who spent 29 years in the Marine Corps.  My dad was a connoisseur of the creative swear word, but my mom (who had many fine qualities but was a bit of a prude) forbade him to use vulgar language when she was around.  My dad's solution was to invent new inappropriate interjections by using innocent English words that (when said with the proper inflection) sounded like swear words.  His favorites were "schist" and "fop."

"Watch your mouth!" my mom would say, after my dad snarled out "Fop!" after bending a nail for the fourth time.

My dad would then, in his Patient Voice, explain that "fop" was not a vulgarity, but meant "a prissy and dandified gentleman."

"Nothing wrong with that, is there, Marguerite?" he'd conclude with an innocent smile.

All of which probably left my mom feeling like swearing herself, not that she ever would have.

So I grew up in a house where swearing was definitely frowned upon.  You can imagine my delight, then, when I read a piece of research supporting the claim that swearing improves your muscular strength, pain tolerance, and stamina.

In an experiment that must have been a riot to conduct, Richard Stephens of the University of Keele led a team that studied two groups of people, each trying to accomplish a task that took power and perseverance.  Some were asked to pedal an exercise bike on a hard uphill setting; others had their grip strength tested.  Half of the test subjects were instructed to utter neutral words, and the other half were told to turn the air blue.

The results were unequivocal.  The individuals who were allowed to swear performed significantly better -- their peak power on the exercise bike exceeded that of the control group by 24 watts, and their grip strength increased by almost five pounds.

"Quite why it is that swearing has these effects on strength and pain tolerance remains to be discovered," Stephens said.  "We have yet to understand the power of swearing fully...  A possible reason... is that it stimulates the body's sympathetic nervous system.  That's the system that makes your heart pound when you are in danger.  If that is the reason, we would expect swearing to make people stronger too, and that is just what we found in these experiments."

Earlier experiments involving keeping your hand submerged in ice water, also run by Keele's team, support the contention that swearing also improves pain tolerance.

"Swearing has been around for centuries and is an almost universal human linguistic phenomenon," Stephens said.  "It taps into emotional brain centers and appears to arise in the right brain, whereas most language production occurs in the left cerebral hemisphere of the brain.  Our research shows one potential reason why swearing developed and why it persists."

So there you have it.  Bad language as a way of increasing your strength and decreasing your discomfort.  My first 5K race of the season is a week from today, and I'm gonna try it out. 

Next Saturday, if you see a tall skinny blond guy running along, muttering, "Fuck, fuck, fuck this, fuck it all" under his breath, you'll know it's just me running an experiment.


  1. I like your dad's approach. I can see where you get your subversive streak. Yeah, I'm talking to you!

    Given the appropriate low and angry tone of voice, even "Rats!" sounds pretty good.

  2. On reading the various news releases, I found myself fuc . . . er . . . plain skeptical.

    For one, saying neutral words would actually distract a person from fully concentrating on the task at hand, engaging the brain in something that is not easy (either reading or making up "neutral" words while performing the task) as opposed to using what would be free-flowing imprecations that would require little engagement and might help with focus like saying a mantra.

    For another, yelling, grunting, or any vocalization might have worked as well (weight lifters, do this regularly).

    In matters of strenght and pain tolerance — assuming imprecations have no inherent magical properties — I'm inclined to assign better performance to something like adrenaline production, something that can be triggered by anger. That, by the way, would be my guess. Just as forcing oneself to laugh can cause physiological responses associated with "real" laughter, I would imagine swearing does the same thing at the other end of the scale.

    But it need not be anger; it can be excitement or even external stimuli (a crowd cheering).

    I'm not a fuc . . . er . . . degreed expert and hence could be totally wrong but I'd guess people who like to swear for no reason would find this particularly appealing as a conclusion — that swearing enhances performance — while ignoring the hypothesis that someone who habitually swears might have a lesser response than someone who almost never swears because the words become part of normal speech — unless utered in anger.

    More interesting to me would be the comparison between those things I mentioned: a person swearing while straining, a person yelling/grunting while straining, a crowd cheering someone on while they attempt a feat of strength. Same for pain tolerance.

    Now, if that showed swearing as the winner in terms of enhancing performance, why, I would be inclined to belive in the magical power of imprecations over all other assumption rooted in explainable physical reactions.

    The interesting thing, then, would be trying to understand saying "fuck!" works better than saying "fudge!" . . . but I contend that once the substitution is made and accepted (i.e. your dad employing a different word) the two would work the same way and get the same reaction (i.e. your mother frowning). In which case, it's not what you say, but how you say it and your intent when you say it. Meaning, just yelling out neutral words as if angry might have produced the same effect.

    Disclosure: I'm not a psychologist. I have no inate understannding of the human condition or universe. It could be — and likely is — that everything I wrote is pure bullshit.