Giving the finger for science – Taboo behaviour and pain perception

Swearing has been shown to help in reducing pain, but does the same also apply for “non-verbal cursing”, like making an offensive gesture? Dutch and British psychologists have set out to find the answer.

There are many different ways to cope with pain. Some people yell, some breathe deeply, others … give the finger?! A new study, led by psychologists Prof. Dr. Ilja van Beest and Dr. Richard Stephens, recently investigated the effects of taboo gesticulations on pain perception. Van Beest and Stephens met through both being recipients of Ig Nobel Prizes, awarded each year for research that “first makes you laugh and then makes you think”. They respectively obtained the Medicine and Peace prizes in 2010.

In the study, conducted at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, participants were asked to submerge their hand in ice-cold water for as long as they could endure it. This so-called cold pressor test is one of the most common methods of inducing experimental pain and has been in use since the 1940s. In one condition, as a taboo gesture, participants extended the middle finger under water; in the control condition they extended the index finger.

Giving the finger brightens the mood, but only cursing reduces pain

While the taboo gesture of “giving the middle finger” was at least shown to increase positive affect, i.e. lift the mood of the participants, it did not seem to alter their pain perception. This contrasts with previous research on taboo language and swearing. Several studies, many of them also led by Dr. Stephens (“Black Sheep: The Hidden Benefits of Being Bad”), demonstrated that cursing decreases pain and helps study participants to keep their hands in icy water for a significantly longer time.

Cartoon of a cursing woman
Science says: using foul language can actually be good for you. ©drante/Getty Images

It seems that verbal swearing has its own specific qualities leading to a decrease in pain – irrespective of cultural differences and familiarity with cursing. The researchers thus speculate that taboo gesticulations, such as “giving the finger”, do not activate taboo schema in the same way that verbal cursing does.

Therefore, the next time you stub your toe, with a bit of swearing you might actually have the best chances of getting rid of your pain. (Just try not to offend any innocent bystanders.)

Read the original research articles, published in the Scandinavian Journal of Pain, for free:

1. Maarten Jacobs, Ilja van Beest, Richard Stephens: Taboo Gesticulations as a Response to Pain, 07.12.2018.

2. Olivia Robertson, Sarita Jane Robinson, Richard Stephens: Swearing as a response to pain: A cross-cultural comparison of British and Japanese participants, 01.10.2017.

Alexandra Hinz

Alexandra works as Digital Communications Editor at De Gruyter. You can get in touch with her via

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