FEB 13, 2017 7:36 AM PST

Swear Words and Honesty: What's the Connection?

Having a dirty mouth can mean more than just some bacteria floating around your tongue. Profanity, which is broad term and often not easily defined, was studied recently and the results were surprising. While there are differing opinions on what is vulgar and what is not, the words studied cannot be printed here in this article but most of us would recognize them.  Language is a complicated issue anyway, and adding in the use of words that are banned in some media makes it even more difficult to study. Socially it has been seen as inappropriate. Television shows and movies are now rated on the kind of language used, along with other adult content they may contain. In a study published recently by researchers at Cambridge University in the UK, profanity was studied via questionnaires, social media analysis and lie scale tests. The goal was to get a more complete picture of the use of profanity and how people react to it. The team wanted a multi-faceted study and made use of big data analytics in their project.

They first recruited 276 participants to fill out detailed surveys about their use of swear words, which ones were used most often and some of the reasons for using certain words. After the survey results were collected, study volunteers were asked to take part in a different set of questions, known as a “lie scale.” This part of the research was designed as a validation of the responses on the survey. In other words, the research team wanted to make sure respondents were being honest about their speech habits and not just answering the questions as they thought society would expect. When comparing the results of the honesty tests to the participant’s answers on cursing, those who reported using the most swear words were the ones least likely to lie or be deceptive in their answers.

Dr. David Stillwell from the university is a lecturer in Big Data Analytics and a co-author on the paper and he explained this correlation stating, “The relationship between profanity and dishonesty is a tricky one. Swearing is often inappropriate but it can also be evidence that someone is telling you their honest opinion. Just as they aren’t filtering their language to be more palatable, they’re also not filtering their views. ”

In addition, the researchers took to social media to get a larger cross-section of responses.  Collecting data from close to 75,000 Facebook users across the United States, the team found those who used more profanity also used language patterns that previous research has shown are associated with truthfulness. In addition, it’s known that in online interactions people will often be more honest than they are in real life situations that involve in-person interactions. In the Facebook data, it was found that the use of profanity varied by location. Users in the Northeast tended to swear much more often than those in the deep South.

The study was aptly titled “Frankly, we do give a damn” as a nod to the controversy that was created by Clark Gable’s last line in the film "Gone With the Wind" which earned the producers a $5,000 fine in 1939 when the movie premiered. The research was published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science. Check out the video included here to learn more about this gosh darn issue.  

Sources: University of Cambridge, Huffington Post, Social Psychological and Personality Science

About the Author
  • I'm a writer living in the Boston area. My interests include cancer research, cardiology and neuroscience. I want to be part of using the Internet and social media to educate professionals and patients in a collaborative environment.
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