Why the #@*$ Don’t We Study Stuff Like This?

5

In certain trying circumstances, urgent circumstances, desperate circumstances,
profanity furnishes a relief denied even to prayer.
— Mark Twain

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Here’s a behavioral curiosity: Swear words are generally regarded as taboo or socially inappropriate, yet every culture has them, and within a culture a majority of people swear.

These are words we’re not supposed to say… but most of us say them anyway. That alone makes swearing fascinating, and I always thought the purpose of behavior analysis was to shed light on fascinating behavior. As Skinner (1956) sort of said in “Case history in scientific method” (now-lost unedited first draft):

When you run into some interesting s#%t, drop everything and follow it.

Yet, as far as I’ve been able to determine, there are almost no behavior analysis studies of swearing (beyond efforts to prevent it). Which if you ask me is a damn shame, because there is so much about the phenomenon that begs for explanation, including:

  • Swear words evoke heightened skin conductance and other responses indicative of emotional arousal in the speaker.
  • Swear words garner more attention and are better remembered by listeners than non-taboo words.
  • Swearing produces hypoalgesia (pain relief) and increased muscular strength in the speaker.
  • Brain injury that impairs other verbal capabilities may leave swearing intact.
  • More or less the same arsenal of epithets is employed in expressing both positive and negative emotion.
  • Swearing both offends and forges social bonds.
  • In bilinguals who learned a second language after mastering a first, many of the effects mentioned here are stronger in the speaker’s primary language.
  • Linguistically speaking, swear words are impressively versatile, with the same word stem potentially functioning as noun (I don’t give a fuck), verb (fuck you!), adjective (my fucking jacket), adverb (fucking amazing), interjection (oh fuck!), and more [see Postscript 2 for a quick primer on The Sultan of Swear Words].
  • Norms and conventions of swearing evolve over time, suggesting the influence of individual learning and/or cultural forces.
  • For unknown reasons — perhaps tracing to the social awkwardness of having to pretentiously append “THE” every time “Ohio State University” is mentioned — Columbus, Ohio, is the epicenter of cursing in the United States. (I am not making this up!)

We know about these features of swearing because people outside of behavior analysis have given it scientific attention more or less commensurate with its prevalence in society (see here for a nice review article). This is a frustrating example — not an isolated one! — of our discipline ceding the best f#$^ing topics to other disciplines. Want to show members of society that behavior analysis is invaluable? Provide answers about things that people notice and care about. Help them make sense of their everyday lives.

Swearing is endemic in everyday lives.

Alas, verbal behavior is a domain in which we’ve let a ton of good stuff get away. Another example: Some years ago Kim Epting, of Elon University, and I compared behavioral approaches to self-editing (when people correct or modify verbal-responses-in-progress) to a substantive research literature out of psycholinguistics. In short, behavior analysis has produced some speculation but almost no data, while psycholinguists have carefully unpacked many interesting phenomena and even generated theoretical accounts that are partially translatable into behavioral terms (see Verbal Behavior, Chapter 15). In a sense, they have been doing our job for us.

Which begs the question of what the h^ll we are thinking when we ignore things, like swearing or self-editing, that are of obvious societal interest. I can suggest two possibilities.

First, a lot of interesting verbal phenomena, like swearing or self-editing, can occur with relatively low frequency and perhaps only under a restricted set of circumstances. This makes them difficult to study using our preferred steady-state operant methods (which depend on reliable response rates).

Consistent with Skinner’s perspective in “Case history,” however, strong sciences find ways to study whatever is interesting.

Second, if you look at the historical missions of the experimental analysis of behavior (to elaborate basic principles) and applied behavior analysis (to create socially valuable behavior change), you’ll notice that phenomena like swearing and self-editing may fit neatly into neither. These behaviors are noteworthy in the everyday world (almost everyone swears!) but do not represent a unique fundamental principle or necessarily require changing. That doesn’t render the phenomena unimportant or unworthy of study. Indeed, there’s an actuarial component to “importance” that sometimes gets lost in the agenda of behavior analysis (for instance, as defined by Baer, Wolf, and Risley, 1968).

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Frankly, my dear, our discipline should give a damn about nonpathological everyday behavior like swearing.

The preceding is enough to make my case that we miss valuable scientific opportunities when we ignore behavior that is all around us, just begging for explanations, but I haven’t even mentioned the best (or worst?) part of the present example: The prevailing mainstream explanation of swearing taboos invokes classical conditioning, via early-childhood pairing of punishment with swearing (see the aforementioned review article for further explanation). By invoking conditioning processes, language experts are, tacitly, looking to us for assistance that, so far, we’ve mostly not bothered to provide. In point of fact, the classical conditioning hypothesis has very limited empirical evidence behind it — though interestingly a key exception is a 2006 Analysis of Verbal Behavior study by J.J. Tomash and Phil Reed (so far, the only swearing paper I’ve found in a behavior analysis journal, aside from those aforementioned interventions to suppress malevolent maledictions). College students completed questionnaires about their childhood history of punishment for swearing. They then read aloud a series of words, some of which were swear words. Consistent with a pairing perspective, skin conductance responses were more extreme for students who reported more past punishment for swearing.

This is a classic case of “if you study things people care about, they will notice.” Although The Analysis of Verbal Behavior is not a high profile publication, linguists have somehow found and cited the Tomash and Reed study because it’s of obvious use to their work. We could all take a lesson from that.

Pat Friman has pointed out that our discipline expends a lot of its effort on issues that apply to relatively few people. Pat’s emphasis is on all of the people who might be helped if we were to tackle higher-prevalence problems. But it bears mentioning that behavior analysis is also helped every time we wade into the mainstream and show that we can deliver insights on things a lot of people care about. Maybe it’s time we got off our a##es and did something about this.

Postscripts

  1. For a behavior analytic program of research on swearing, an obvious starting point is developing functional, evidence-based explanations for the many patterns in everyday swearing that research out of other disciplines has already identified. Along the way, of course, there is much that behavior analysis brings to the table. For instance, the fact that swearing induces emotional arousal and provides pain relief suggests there are situations in which the opportunity to swear would be a reinforcer. Mapping the applicable motivating operations would likely shed light on the conditionalities of swearing. One wonders too about the behavioral economic properties of the opportunity to swear — for instance, would demand curves de different from those of reinforcers with less emotional impact? Note as well that, although it’s pretty common for different reinforcers to function as economic substitutes, there’s research suggesting that other kinds of invectives would not function as substitutes for swearing. And how about swearing as the basis for interventions? For instance, one paper I read advocates incorporating swearing into physical therapy sessions to increase patient attendance and persistence under adversity. Once you get started, there are tons of possibilities.
  2. To advance your expertise on swearing, here’s a quick run-down of FUCK  from Love and Stenstrom (2023):

As a member of what Mohr (2013) calls the “Big Six” (with CUNT, COCK, ASS, SHIT and PISS), FUCK has been characterised as being among “the worst words in English”… FUCK is of Indo-European origin (originally meaning ‘to strike’), and has cognates in related languages including the German word ficken (‘strike’ or ‘hit’), the Dutch word fokken (‘breed’) and the Swedish dialectal word focka (‘strike’ or ‘copulate’). In English, FUCK can be traced as far back as the 16th century and the Scottish poet William Dunbar, who used it in so-called ‘flytings’, a type of word duel intended to diss the opponent by using insulting expressions, the modern counter-part of which is ‘ritual insults’, which occur in contemporary teenage talk in the form of ‘swearing by mother.’ (p. 167).

The contemporary spread of FUCK has been described as “a success story of almost unlikely proportions”… According to recent corpus research, swearing is most common among adolescent and young adult speakers, and FUCK is the most commonly-used swear word in contemporary casual conversation…. Given that mild swear words tend to occur more frequently than the most offensive ones, the high rate of usage of FUCK, while supposedly being a strongly offensive swear word, could be considered an example of what Beers Fagersten (2007) calls the swearing paradox; namely “how this highly offensive behaviour (according to ratings studies) can also enjoy such a high rate of occurrence.” (p. 168).

3. Not everyone swears, at least not all of the time. See Darlene Crone-Todd’s relevant note about the usually-dignified Joe Pear in this article.

4. (added May 15, 2024) Check out this fascinating study of taboo words across 18 different languages and language variants. Among the highlights: A cool table showing which taboo words occur in which languages; an interesting profile of the general effects of these words on listener emotional responding; and the finding that curse words are, contrary to popular opinion, not necessarily high in “taboo-ness.”