Chimpanzees share language with humans, 0:44 study finds

(CNN) -- Educated society considers that swearing is a vulgar sign that indicates little intelligence and education, because why resort to foul language when you are fortunate enough to have a rich vocabulary?

It turns out that that perception is full of... nonsense. In fact, studies show that swearing can be a sign of verbal superiority, and it can also provide other potential rewards.

"The advantages of swearing are many," says Timothy Jay, professor emeritus of psychology at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts who has studied the subject for more than 40 years.

"The benefits of swearing began to emerge over the past two decades as a result of a great deal of research on the brain and emotions, along with much better technology for studying brain anatomy."

1. Cursing can be a sign of intelligence

Well-educated people with lots of words at their disposal, according to a 2015 study, are better at making up swear words than those with less verbal fluency.


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For that study, participants were asked to list the largest number of words beginning with F, A or S in one minute. Another minute was spent inventing swear words that began with those three letters. The study found that those who invented the most words with F, A and S were also the ones who swore the most.

It's a sign of intelligence "to the extent that language is correlated with intelligence," says Jay, the study's author. "People who are good at language are good at generating a vocabulary of swearing."

Swearing can also be associated with social intelligence, Jay added.

"Strategies for knowing where and when it's appropriate to swear, and when it's not," Jay said, "is a social cognitive skill like choosing the right clothes for every occasion. It's a pretty sophisticated social tool."

2. Swearing can be a sign of honesty

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Science also found a positive link between blasphemy and honesty. According to a series of three studies published in 2017, people who swear lie less on an interpersonal level and have higher levels of integrity overall.

"When you honestly express your emotions with powerful words, then you're going to give the impression of being more honest," said Jay, who was not involved in the studies.

While a higher rate of profanity use was associated with greater honesty, the study authors cautioned that "the findings should not be interpreted to mean that the more a person uses profanity, the less likely they are to engage in more serious unethical or immoral behaviors."

3. Profanity improves pain tolerance

Do you want to hold on until the end? Go ahead, let out a swear word.

Cyclists who swore while pedaling against resistance had more power and strength than those who used "neutral" words, studies show.

The research also found that people who swore while squeezing a bench screw were able to squeeze harder and longer.

Saying obscenities doesn't just help resistance: if you pinch your finger with the car door, you may very well feel less pain if you say "my*****" instead of "shoot."

According to another study, people who swore while submerging their hand in ice water felt less pain and were able to hold their hand in water for longer than those who said a neutral word.

"The main message is that swearing helps you cope with pain," lead author and psychologist Richard Stephens said in an earlier CNN interview. Stephens is a Senior Lecturer at Keele University in Staffordshire, England, where he directs the Psychobiology Research Laboratory.

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Stephens says it works like this: cursing produces a stress response that activates the body's old defensive reflex. An adrenaline rush increases heart rate and breathing, preparing muscles for fight or flight.

Simultaneously, another physiological reaction called the analgesic response occurs, which makes the body more impervious to pain.

"That would make evolutionary sense, because you'll be a better fighter and a better runner if you're not held back by pain worries," Stephens says.

"So it seems that by cursing you trigger an emotional response within yourself, which triggers a mild stress response, which carries with it a stress-induced reduction in pain."

Beware, however, the next time you decide to lengthen your workout by cursing. Swear words lose their power over pain when used too much, the research also found.

Some of us like to swear more than others. For example, people who are most afraid of pain, called "catastrophists." A catastrophist, Stephens explains, is someone who can have a little wound and think, "Oh, this is life-threatening. I'm going to gangrene, I'm going to die."

"The research found that men who were less catastrophic seemed to make a profit from swearing, while men who were more catastrophic did not," Stephens said. "Whereas with women there was no difference."

4. Cursing is a sign of creativity

The ability to swear seems to be centered on the right side of the brain, the part people often call the "creative brain."

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"We know that patients who have right-sided strokes tend to become less emotional, less able to understand and tell jokes, and tend to just stop swearing even though they said it a lot beforehand," says Emma Byrne, author of "Swearing Is Good for You."

Research on swearing dates back to the Victorian era, when doctors discovered that patients who lost the ability to speak could continue to curse.

"They were swearing incredibly fluently," Byrne explains. "Childish reprimands, swear words and affectionate terms – words with strong emotional content learned at a young age tend to be retained in the brain even when all the rest of our language is lost."

5. Throwing expletives instead of punches

Why do we swear? Perhaps because they provide an evolutionary advantage that can protect us from physical harm, according to Jay.

"A dog or cat will scratch or bite you when they're scared or angry," she explains. "Swearing allows us to symbolically express our emotions without having to do it tooth and nail.

"In other words, I can tell someone to move my finger or you across the street. I don't have to face them."

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Cursing then becomes a remote form of aggression, Jay says, offering the opportunity to express feelings quickly and hopefully avoid repercussions.

"The purpose of cursing is to vent my emotions, and it has the advantage that it allows me to cope," he says. "In addition, it very easily communicates to passers-by what my emotional state is. It has that advantage of emotional efficacy: it's very fast and clear."

A universal language

What makes the use of profanity so powerful? The power of taboo, of course. That reality is universally recognized: almost every language in the world contains swear words.

"It seems that as soon as you have a taboo word, and the emotional perception that that word is going to make other people uncomfortable, the rest seems to follow naturally," Byrne says.

It's not just people who swear. Even primates swear when they have the chance.

"Chimpanzees in the wild tend to use their droppings as a social cue, designed to keep people away," Byrne explains.

The hand-raised, potty-trained chimpanzees learned "poop" sign language to signal to their caregivers when they needed to go to the toilet.

"And as soon as they learned the sign of poop, they started using it like we use the word my****," Byrne explains. "Cursing is a way of expressing your feelings that doesn't involve throwing away my **** for real. Only the idea of the s*** is launched."

Does that mean we should curse whenever we feel like it, regardless of our surroundings or the feelings of others? Of course not. But at least, the next time a swear word accidentally escapes you, don't worry.

After all, you are just a human being.

Swear language