People Who Swear Are More Honest Than Those Who Don’t, Finds a New University Study

I’ve heard it said many times: “I don’t trust peo­ple who don’t swear.” It’s not an empir­i­cal state­ment. Just an intu­ition, that peo­ple who shy away from salty lan­guage might also shy away from cer­tain truths—may even be, per­haps, a lit­tle delu­sion­al. Few peo­ple char­ac­ter­ize tee­to­talers of swear­ing with more bite than Stephen Fry, who believes “the sort of twee per­son who thinks swear­ing is in any way a sign of a lack of edu­ca­tion or of a lack of ver­bal inter­est is just a fuck­ing lunatic.” George Car­lin would approve. A com­i­cal­ly exag­ger­at­ed view. No, swear­ing isn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly a sign of men­tal ill­ness. But it does cor­re­late strong­ly with truthtelling.

It seems all the sus­pi­cious salts out there may have hap­pened upon a mea­sur­able phe­nom­e­non. A study pub­lished last year with the cheeky title “Frankly, We Do Give a Damn: The Rela­tion­ship Between Pro­fan­i­ty and Hon­esty,” notes, “the con­sis­tent find­ings across the stud­ies sug­gest that the pos­i­tive rela­tion between pro­fan­i­ty and hon­esty is robust, and that rela­tion­ship found at the indi­vid­ual lev­el indeed trans­lates to the soci­ety lev­el.” It’s true, some research shows that peo­ple who swear may be like­ly to vio­late oth­er social norms, god bless ‘em, but they are also less like­ly to lie dur­ing police inter­ro­ga­tions.

After review­ing the lit­er­a­ture, the researchers, led by Maas­tricht Uni­ver­si­ty Psy­chol­o­gist Gilad Feld­man, describe the results of their own exper­i­ments. They asked 276 peo­ple to report on their swear­ing habits (or not) in detail. Those peo­ple then took a psy­cho­log­i­cal test that mea­sured their lev­els of hon­esty. Next, the team ana­lyzed 70,000 social media inter­ac­tions, and report­ed that “pro­fan­i­ty and hon­esty were found to be sig­nif­i­cant­ly and pos­i­tive­ly cor­re­lat­ed, indi­cat­ing that those who used more pro­fan­i­ty were more hon­est in their Face­book sta­tus updates.” They did not say whether high lev­els of hon­esty on Face­book is desir­able.

Final­ly, Feld­man and his col­leagues widened their scope to 48 U.S. states, and were able to cor­re­late social media data with mea­sures of gov­ern­ment account­abil­i­ty. States with high­er lev­els of swear­ing had a high­er integri­ty score accord­ing to a 2012 index pub­lished by the Cen­ter for Pub­lic Integri­ty. (Believe or not, New Jer­sey had some of the high­est scores.) All three of their stud­ies yield­ed sim­i­lar results. “At both the indi­vid­ual and soci­ety lev­el,” they con­clude, “we found that a high­er rate of pro­fan­i­ty use was asso­ci­at­ed with more hon­esty.” This does not mean, as Ephrat Livni writes at Quartz, that “peo­ple who curse like sailors” won’t “com­mit seri­ous eth­i­cal crimes—but they won’t pre­tend all’s well online.”

As to the ques­tion of whether swear­ing betrays a lack of edu­ca­tion and an impov­er­ished vocab­u­lary, we might turn to lin­guist, psy­chol­o­gist, and neu­ro­sci­en­tist Steven Pinker, who has made a learned defense of foul lan­guage, in dri­ly humor­ous talks, books, and essays. “When used judi­cious­ly,” he writes in a 2008 Har­vard Brain arti­cle, “swear­ing can be hilar­i­ous, poignant, and uncan­ni­ly descrip­tive.” His is an argu­ment that relies not only on data but on philo­soph­i­cal reflec­tion and lit­er­ary appre­ci­a­tion. “It’s a fact of life that peo­ple swear,” he says, and so, it’s a fact of art. Shake­speare invent­ed dozens of swears and was nev­er afraid to work blue. Per­haps that’s why we find his rep­re­sen­ta­tions of human­i­ty so peren­ni­al­ly hon­est.

You can read “Frankly, We Do Give a Damn: The Rela­tion­ship Between Pro­fan­i­ty and Hon­esty” here. In addi­tion to Gilad Feld­man, the research paper was also writ­ten by Hui­wen Lian (The Hong Kong Uni­ver­si­ty of Sci­ence and Tech­nol­o­gy,) Michal Kosin­s­ki (Stan­ford), and David Still­well (Cam­bridge).

via Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Stephen Fry, Lan­guage Enthu­si­ast, Defends The “Unnec­es­sary” Art Of Swear­ing

Steven Pinker Explains the Neu­ro­science of Swear­ing (NSFW)

George Car­lin Per­forms His “Sev­en Dirty Words” Rou­tine: His­toric and Com­plete­ly NSFW

Free Online Psy­chol­o­gy & Neu­ro­science Cours­es 

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (3)
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  • Gerry says:

    Maybe not a “sign of a lack of edu­ca­tion”, but prob­a­bly one indi­cat­ing a lack of class.

  • Dave says:

    So says the ‘classy’ judge­men­tal ass­hole.

  • Samantha says:

    This is tru­ly fas­ci­nat­ing infor­ma­tion, I’ve sus­pect­ed it all along! I end­ed up on this site because I was look­ing for arti­cles regard­ing the sci­ence behind peo­ple who don’t swear. My boss makes this huge deal about how she nev­er swears, and well…she real­ly doesn’t. Per­son­al­ly, I don’t feel com­fort­able around peo­ple who don’t swear – it makes every­thing feel fake and prud­ish. This reflects in the way my boss speaks — you get the feel­ing she’s being disin­gen­u­ous. Nobody in the com­pa­ny trusts her, and all but 1 per­son (who swears like a sailor lol) are very hes­i­tant to speak to her at all. The one she’s friends with is not at all con­cerned about soci­etal norms and doesn’t real­ly care if she offends the boss by swear­ing dur­ing casu­al con­ver­sa­tion. Now this per­son is a delight to talk to, and is very trust­wor­thy.

    On the oth­er hand, my boss has been caught in lit­er­al­ly hun­dreds of lies dur­ing the time I’ve worked at this com­pa­ny. Since she doesn’t have a boss, she gets away with all the lies she wants. She also is one of those who sug­ar-coats her face­book posts, is a con­trol freak to her fam­i­ly, and talks about how “zenned” she is…as I over­hear her bad­mouthing fam­i­ly and friends to each oth­er. So yes, delu­sion­al fits the bill. She won­ders why peo­ple don’t trust her– yet most every­one feels the need to act fake around her because of her weird prud­ish, pris­sy, under­hand­ed nature.

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