Are People Who Swear More Honest? (Psychology)

A new study claims they are, but the evidence is still unclear.

SUMMARY

  • A study suggests that people who curse a lot are more honest. They may use fewer social filters and therefore may be more honest.
  • Other studies have reached the opposite conclusion, finding that honest people may swear less, not more.
  • One reason that findings may differ is that cursing serves many purposes, for example, swearing in comedy has a different meaning than when someone is hurt or angry.

Do you curse a lot? Good for you. A study from University of Cambridge researchers says that you’re likely an honest person.

Those who swear may be more honest than those who keep their language clean, maintains David Stillwell, Reader in Computational Social Science at the Judge Business School, one of the authors of a 2017 study. Those who curse use fewer social filters and therefore may be more honest.

“We found a consistent positive relationship between profanity and honesty; profanity was associated with less lying and deception at the individual level and with higher integrity at the society level.” The study says, “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.”

The study “found a consistent positive relationship between profanity and honesty; profanity was associated with less lying and deception at the individual level and with higher integrity at the society level.”

I wish I had known that when I was in the army. I thought drill sergeants were intimidating when I should have known that beneath that rough exterior they were more honest than the commanding officer whose language wasn’t laced with curses.

Honesty Isn’t Always Linked to Profanity

Not everyone sees the use of rough language as an indicator of honesty. Reinout de Vries and colleagues reach the opposite conclusion in their article, “Honest People Tend to Use Less—Not More—Profanity.”

The reason why studies reach different conclusions is that, in fact, cursing serves many functions and is highly context-dependent, according to Dutch psychologist Ad Vingerhoets and colleagues. For example, cursing in the military serves as a form of group bonding and solidarity, for comedians it is a way of eliciting laughter, when hurt it is a form of catharsis, and for the aggrieved a means of causing emotional pain to others.

What does it mean when profanity isn’t an exceptional utterance but ubiquitous, heard from dinner table chatter to a president’s tweets? In the last few years, once taboo words are printed in respected newspapers; the F-word routinely laces movie dialogues (The Wolf of Wall Street uses it 569 times); streaming TV shows and apps use vulgar language as part of the dialogue even if it is anachronistic, such as in The Queen’s Gambit, set in the late ’50s and early ’60s, when, in reality, at that time telling someone to “shut up” was shocking. It was only a few years before that the word “pregnant” couldn’t be used on TV.

While profanity has moved center stage, it is still off limits for some: teachers, children, clergy and newscasters come to mind. How long will this be true? Will what was once taboo become so pervasive that it will have no shock value or perform a bonding function?

If a potty mouth is acceptable for children and cursing commonplace from the pulpit, what will take the place of the psychological functions that profanity once performed? No one knows but I would prefer that society return to the expectation of decent language as the norm and leave coarse language for those times when it serves a useful purpose.


This article is originally written by Arthur Dobrin, who teaches applied ethics at Hofstra University. He is the author, coauthor, and editor of more than 20 books. This article is republished here from psychology today under common creative licenses

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