Science has proven that swearing makes you more honest

Science has proven that swearing makes you more honest

The great American stand-up comic George Carlin once stated that there are seven dirty words too offensive to ever be said on television or printed in the papers. In his seminal routine, Carlin railed against the incongruous rules of social etiquette which prevented him from uttering these obscenities and, at the time, his routine was so shocking that he was arrested for disturbing the peace after a gig in Milwaukee. Defending his freedom of speech, his God-given right to swear and mouth-off, Carlin stated: "These words have no power. We give them this power by refusing to be free and easy with them. We give them great power over us. They really, in themselves, have no power. It's the thrust of the sentence that makes them either good or bad."

Ironically, Carlin's seven dirty little words are too filthy for me to write here: which actively demonstrates the point he's trying to make. Context and intention can make bad language good, or degrade it to the level of a hate crime, depending on the specific situation. Back in 1972, the foul-mouthed comedian was vilified for his comments. Yet now it seems that science supports his tirade of curses. That's right: new research has managed to prove that swearing loudly and often doesn't just have health benefits, but can actually be a decent indication that you're a more honest person than those who forgo expletives.

A drawing of a cartoon glove giving the finger. Credit: Getty

I have to say that I thoroughly support this hypothesis: I don't trust anyone who doesn't enjoy a good bout of hard (and preferably creative) swearing from time to time. But, prior to throwing up our arms and screaming every epithet that pops into our heads, we need to examine the methodology behind this news before we give it credence.

The new findings come courtesy of a study entitled "Frankly, we do give a damn: The relationship between profanity and honesty", which was published in Social Psychological and Personality Scienceand conducted by a hot team of expert linguists from Maastricht University in the Netherlands. The Dutch academics, led by author Gilad Feldman, initially examined 276 participants in order to learn how much they swore. How did they do this? Ironically enough, they had to rely on the honesty of their participants. They asked the chosen 276 to list their favourite go-to swear words. Then they requested that the participants keep a sort of "curse diary", where they were encouraged to take note of the strength and frequency of their swearing as they went about their day-to-day lives.

The Dutch linguists additionally asked that the subjects note the specific emotions they associated with their swear words of choice. What did they feel when they were swearing? Were they angry, frustrated, elated or tired? Furthermore, the 276 testees were asked to fill in a brief psychological survey, which helped the researchers rank them based on how honest their responses were likely to be. After correlating the survey results with the swear diaries, the Dutch researchers learned that the participants who lied less on average listed a higher number of frequently used swear words, and also reported that their swearing was typically used to express negative emotions - such as rage or exasperation.

In the second part of the study, the researchers turned to social media. They analysed data from approximately 70,000 Facebook profiles, focusing on the presence of curse words measured against open displays of honesty online. According to data from a study conducted at the University of California, people who lie frequently on the internet use fewer first and third-person pronouns, such as "I', "me", "she" and "their", and also use fewer exclusive words such as "but" and "exclude." Those people who used more first and third person pronouns, in conjunction with exclusive words, also used profanity more on their public Facebook profiles. Using this model, the Dutch research team achieved an accuracy rating of 67 per cent when detecting dishonesty.

In the paper's abstract, Feldman noted: "There are two conflicting perspectives regarding the relationship between profanity and dishonesty. These two forms of norm-violating behaviour share common causes and are often considered to be positively related. On the other hand, however, profanity is often used to express one’s genuine feelings and could therefore be negatively related to dishonesty."

He added: "We set out to provide an empirical answer to competing views regarding the relationship between profanity and honesty ... at both the individual and society level, we found that a higher rate of profanity use was associated with more honesty. This research makes several important contributions by taking a first step to examine profanity and honesty enacted in naturalistic settings, using large samples, and extending findings from the individual level to a look at the implications for society."

But swearing often and vigorously isn't just an indicator of sincerity: it's often shown to be a prerequisite of higher intelligence. Remember back in school when your teachers would admonish you for cursing, and claim that only unimaginative people swore? Well, it turns out that they didn't have a clue what they were talking about. A study by psychologists from Marist College found that fluency in swearing often means that we have a much richer vocabulary than those who self-censor. Hot damn!

The researchers asked a group of volunteers to think of as many words beginning with a specific letter of the alphabet as they could manage in a minute. Those who could think of more scored higher in terms of verbal fluency. Then, researchers repeated the same test, but this time substituted swear words instead of everyday words. When the psychologists compared the scores from both tests they discovered that the people who scored highest on the verbal fluency test also scored highly on the swearing fluency task.

So for all those of you who worry that your potty-mouth makes you a bad person, take comfort in that fact that two teams of expert eggheads have managed to prove that you're actually far more trustworthy, and far smarter, than your average prude. Seriously, I wouldn't lie to you; I swear it!