Fake News: Psychologists Do NOT Urge Folks To Be Friends With Those Who Swear A Lot

Fact Check

  • by: Alan Duke

STORY UPDATED: check for updates below.

Fake News: Psychologists Do NOT Urge Folks To Be Friends With Those Who Swear A Lot

Do psychologists urge people to make friends with people who swear a lot because they are smarter and more honest? No, that's not true: It is an inaccurate interpretation of research that looked at the theory that people who know more swear words also have a greater vocabulary of non-swear words. It did not conclude that people who use taboo language are smarter or that people who know the words actually use them.

The false conclusions were included in several stories shared on social media, including an article (archived here) published by lessonslearnedinlife.com on September 24, 2018 under the title "Psychologists urge folks to be friends with those who swear a lot". It opened:

People who swear too much have been stigmatized as being uneducated or missing crucial language skills. However, that assumption is starkly wrong.
We know that highly intelligent people tend to view the world and the things around them differently. Surprisingly, they also tend to be really proficient at hurling a creative swear word, says a new research. Contrary to the popular belief, it's not the less educated or dumb people who swear a lot.
Most of us tend to avoid those who swear a lot thinking that they do not possess enough words to express themselves properly, and are hence limited in thinking as well. Psychologists Kristin Joy of Marist College and Timothy Jay of Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts believe it may just be the opposite, which they state in their study.

This is what social media users saw:

This article continued:

Their study shows that the skills to make up new swear words is very closely related to having high vocabulary and fluency. People with a high IQ tend to have both of these and are hence more adept at coming up with novel swear words.

"People who use taboo words understand their general expressive content as well as nuanced distinctions that must be drawn to use slurs appropriately," the researchers wrote. "The ability to make nuanced distinction indicates the presence of more rather than less linguistic knowledge."

The "study" that this story linked to was no study, but a sample of 16 pages from a book published in 2000 titled "WHY WE CURSE -- A NEURO-PSYCHO-SOCIAL THEORY OF SPEECH" by psychologist Timothy Jay. Those pages focused on links between Tourette's Syndrome and brain damage to cursing and the importance of the frontal lobe of the brain in filtering out taboo language. Chapter 3 opens:

This book proposes a Neuro-Psycho-Social (NPS) Theory of cursing that integrates three broad aspects of human behavior: neurological control, psychological restraints, and socio-cultural restrictions. While curse words can be differentiated from noncurse words through a social-historical analysis, an act of cursing cannot be understood without considering simultaneously all three of the dimensions underlying human behavior.

Do we really need to quote any more? It is an academic book that uses huge words that do not have anything to do with the idea that prolific cursers are the best buddies.

Despite this, we kept looking. We did find a more recent study by Jay and his fellow researcher Kristin Jay, who is an assistant professor at Marist College. Published in 2014, it is titled "Taboo word fluency and knowledge of slurs and general pejoratives: deconstructing the poverty-of-vocabulary myth." The study's abstract read:

A folk assumption about colloquial speech is that taboo words are used because speakers cannot find better words with which to express themselves: because speakers lack vocabulary. A competing possibility is that fluency is fluency regardless of subject matter--that there is no reason to propose a difference in lexicon size and ease of access for taboo as opposed to emotionally-neutral words. In order to test these hypotheses, we compared general verbal fluency via the Controlled Oral Word Association Test (COWAT) with taboo word fluency and animal word fluency in spoken and written formats. Both formats produced positive correlations between COWAT fluency, animal fluency, and taboo word fluency, supporting the fluency-is-fluency hypothesis.

Translation: The researchers wanted to know if people used curse words just because they didn't know better words to use. They tested some bright college students who knew lots of nice words and found out they also knew a lot of swear words. The psychologists concluded that the more good words you learn, the more bad words you should know.

When we reached out to Dr. Timothy Jay for his guidance on this questionable article, he replied:

I cannot endorse that interpretation of my work.

British psychologist Dr. Richard Stephens did a good job of interpreting the study in his blog titled "Being fluent at swearing is a sign of healthy verbal ability":

The Jays' study is fascinating because it demonstrates that being fluent at swearing can be seen as a sign of a healthy verbal ability just as much as having a sizeable vocabulary of non-swear words. This is the first study to have shown, regardless of taboo aspects of word meanings, that "fluency is fluency" as the authors put it. Still, it is worth noting that fluency is not the same as frequency. This research did not assess whether swear words are more often uttered by persons of lower IQ or a more limited vocabulary.

Dr. Stephens made two important points that counter the claim of these false articles: Fluency in taboo words is not the same as frequency of use AND the study did not say people who use swear words more are smarter or dumber.

This article also referred to other research that purportedly found people who swear more are more honest:

Another reason that may encourage you to befriend people who swear a lot is that they may be more honest. This indication comes from a study that looked at thousands of Facebook status that used swear words and words for deception. It had substantial data to suggest that honest people tend to swear a lot.

Psychologists also mention that individuals who tend to swear a lot are more at ease while expressing themselves. Hence, also suggesting that they are more true to themselves than those who tend to mince their words or hold back entirely.

The article provided no references or links to this study. We have searched without luck. The Jays' several papers don't offer any similar conclusions.

Another questionable article that references the Jays' research is titled "People Who Swear a Lot are Good as Friends." It opened:

It's not uncommon for intelligent people to look at the world and society around them in a different way, quite the contrary. To our surprise, according to the latest research, they're also prone to using profanities and even be creative at it, much more compared to regular people. It turns out that highly intelligent and educated people swear much more than dumb and less educated ones.

This, too, mis-represents the research.

Lead Stories is not trying to suggest that you unfriend your foul-mouthed acquaintances. We are only concluding that these stories are inaccurate for suggesting that experts recommend that you to seek out more of them.


  • 2019-08-01T19:40:44Z 2019-08-01T19:40:44Z
    Updated Thurs. Aug 1, 2019 -- added quote from Dr. Jay saying article does not reflect his research.

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  Alan Duke

Editor-in-Chief Alan Duke co-founded Lead Stories after ending a 26-year career with CNN, where he mainly covered entertainment, current affairs and politics. Duke closely covered domestic terrorism cases for CNN, including the Oklahoma City federal building bombing, the UNABOMBER and search for Southeast bomber Eric Robert Rudolph. CNN moved Duke to Los Angeles in 2009 to cover the entertainment beat. Duke also co-hosted a daily podcast with former HLN host Nancy Grace, "Crime Stories with Nancy Grace" and hosted the podcast series "Stan Lee's World: His Real Life Battle with Heroes & Villains." You'll also see Duke in many news documentaries, including on the Reelz channel, CNN and HLN.

Read more about or contact Alan Duke

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