Swearing reduces pain but using a taboo hand gesture can brighten your mood, study finds

New research into the benefits of swearing has found that making a taboo hand gesture whilst in pain can help you feel more positive.

The latest study led jointly by Dr Richard Stephens from Keele University and Professor Dr Ilja van Beest from Tilburg University in the Netherlands was published in the Scandinavian Journal of Pain.

The research was the latest in a series of experiments assessing the beneficial effects of swearing as a response to pain. Dr Stephens’ previous research has found that by swearing verbally people can tolerate pain for longer, and this new study focused on whether visual gestures had the same effect.

In this study, rather than swearing verbally, volunteers were asked to make a taboo hand gesture while their hand was immersed in ice water. Participants did not perceive a lesser amount of pain when making the middle finger gesture, but they rated their experience more positively when they used their middle finger over pointing their index finger.

Dr Stephens said: “My latest research challenges the old adage that actions speak louder than words. The idea behind this study was to see if the effect of verbal swearing would translate to a different modality, by which we mean a different one of the five senses - sight, sound, touch, smell, taste. In this case it was visual – using a middle finger gesture – as opposed to our previous studies that focused on verbal swearing.

“We founded our research on previous studies showing that hand gestures can impact on psychology. For example, clenching the fist can make the person doing this feel more powerful and confident, while making a hand-over-heart gesture can make the person doing this feel more honest. Also, making a middle finger gesture would bring to mind similar kinds of taboo thoughts and ideas as is the case for verbal swearing.

“There was one beneficial effect of the taboo gesture over pointing with the index finger – people rated their experience of ice water submersion more positively when making the middle finger gesture. While this might provide some modicum of relief in the context of pain, overall our study concludes that making the taboo middle finger gesture does not provide pain relief in the same way that verbal swearing has been shown to, but can brighten your mood.”