Christian B. Miller Ph.D.

Research explores whether cursing might be a sign of greater honesty.

Key Points:

  • People who reported cursing more often scored higher on measures of honesty.
  • Individuals who used more profanity in their Facebook posts were also more likely to use phrasing that correlates more strongly to honesty.
  • Facebook users who used more profanity in posts were more likely to live in states whose residents ranked higher on measures of honesty.

Think about the really honest people in your life, maybe a spouse or co-worker or best friend. Do they tend to swear a lot? Or flip it around: Are the people who you view as the most dishonest – the most likely to lie, cheat, or steal – also the ones who tend to have a fairly clean mouth?

More generally, would you expect cursing to be associated with higher or lower honesty? We can imagine arguments on both sides. On the one hand, we might think that as cursing goes up, a person’s honesty goes down. After all, profanity sometimes goes against societal standards for good behavior. So does dishonesty. Profanity can be used to harm others. So can dishonesty. Profanity can be a sign of lack of self-control. Same with dishonesty. Profanity can indicate a shady or untrustworthy character. Dishonesty, naturally enough, undermines trust.

But hold on a minute. We can also make a strong case that cursing and honesty go hand in hand, at least much of the time. The person who says ‘sh*t’ when dropping a tool on her foot, or spilling the coffee all over her computer, is being transparent about her feelings. She is expressing, in an emotionally charged way, what she is feeling in the moment. To outwardly pretend as if everything were alright, while internally being very upset, is to intentionally distort the facts. That’s a way of failing to be honest. In addition, cursing has been linked to increased vocabulary, stress relief, and pain tolerance.

So which is it? Is honesty linked with profanity or not? It would be nice if we had some empirical data — and now, for the first time, we do.

In the first set of studies to ever test the relationship, Gilad Feldman at Maastricht University and his colleagues found a positive correlation between profanity and honesty. The three studies were published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

In the first study, 276 participants just answered a series of questions. Some were about profanity, such as “How often do you curse (swear/use bad language)” in different contexts, such as to another person, when by yourself, or in your writing. Some questions were about honesty, such as, “If you say you will do something, do you always keep your promise no matter how inconvenient it might be?” The results: Participants who said they cursed more often got higher scores on the measure of honesty.

I am not inclined to put a lot of weight on surveys like this, especially when it comes to matters of lying and deceiving. Fortunately, Feldman and his colleagues used some other techniques as well. In their second study, they enlisted the help of Facebook — specifically, the status updates of 73,789 users who agreed to be participants. There was no way for Feldman to independently verify the status updates, but instead he used a clever indirect measure. For it turns out that when people lie, there are certain linguistic tendencies which emerge, including using fewer first-person pronouns (to “dissociate themselves from the lie”) and more negative words (since they “are likely to feel discomfort by lying and therefore express more negative feelings”). These linguistic tendencies are by no means a perfect tool to discover lying, but they have been found to help.

Back to Facebook.

The same status updates for these participants were also scanned for common swear words. It turned out, according to Feldman, that “those who used more profanity were more honest in their Facebook status updates.”

Finally, the third study shifted the focus from the individual to the societal level, specifically the 50 states in the US. There is a state-by-state measure of honesty called the State Integrity Investigation. So Feldman took the profanity data for the American Facebook users (29,701 participants) and determined which state each was from. It turned out that on average people who cursed more on Facebook tended to be from states which ranked higher for honesty. Connecticut and New Jersey were in the top three on profanity. (Is that surprising?) They were almost among the top three most honest states. (Is that surprising?)

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

Speak TruthSource: Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

So it turns out, based on these preliminary findings at least, swearing is a sign of greater honesty. In fact, Feldman in his first study asked participants about their reasons for using profanity. Two of the main reasons were to express their emotions and to express their true selves.

Some caveats should be mentioned: These are just preliminary studies, and we need to see many other measures of honesty used. They are correlational, so we can’t say anything about causation. Also these studies just found general tendencies. There will still be plenty of people who swear a lot and are dishonest, along with those who swear very little and are honest.

Nevertheless, for now profanity seems to be associated with greater honesty, rather than dishonesty. I guess knowing that is some small comfort the next time I walk barefoot on a bunch of sharp Legos. I just hope my kids won’t be around to hear me.

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