A few days ago, there was an interesting discussion of swear words in the blogosphere (my contribution was a map of Louisiana… don’t ask). Like any good cognitive psychologist with obsessive compulsive disorder, upon reading the swear words posts, I thought to myself, “What have I read in the literature about swear words?”
The answer is, not much. In fact, the only studies that I can recall well enough to write about without having to do any actual work other than pressing keys on a keyboard weren’t actually about swear words, but about words with a negative emotional valence. Kensinger and Corkin1 hypothesized that emotionally negative words would be remembered better than neutral words (in general, people remember negative things better than neutral things, so the prediction wasn’t that much of a stretch), and in six experiments, they confirmed this prediction. Negative words were consistently remembered better than neutral words. But in four of the experiments (3-6), another type of words was remembered better than negative words: taboo words.
Kensinger and Corkin used taboo words (words for sexual body parts and swear words), starting in Experiment 3, to test whether the memory benefit of negative emotional valence was separable from arousal. The taboo words they picked had higher emotional valences (i.e., they were less negative) than the negative words, and their valences were only slightly lower (i.e., more negative) than the neutral words. The arousal scores (how arousing they were) for taboo words were much higher than either the neutral words or the negative words (which were less arousing than the neutral words). Here are the valence and arousal scores for each word type, from their Table 4 (p. 1174):
In Experiment 3, participants were presented with 90 words (30 of each type) for 2 seconds each, and after a fifteen minute delay, they were given a list of 180 words (90 from the original list, and 90 new words), and for each word, had to indicate whether it had been on the original list (they used a remember-know paradigm, but we don’t need to get into that). As in the other experiments, negative words were remembered better than neutral words (63% and 50%, respectively), but the taboo words were by far the best rememberd (80%!). In the fourth experiment, they looked at whether the effects of arousal extended to the context in which the words were presented. The procedure was identical to that of Experiment 3, except that the words were presented in different colors, and in the recall task, participants were asked to remember the color in which the word had been presented, along with whether the word had been in the original list. Once again, the memory for the words was better for negative words than neutral words, but best for taboo words. In addition, people remembered the context (color of the word) in which the word had been presented better for taboo words than either of the other types (44% for taboo words, 31% and 25% for negative and neutral words, respectively). The results of Experiments 5 and 6 were similar to those of Experiments 3 and 4: negative words remembered better than neutral words, but taboo words remembered best of all.
The lesson Kensinger and Corkin take away from this is booooooring: the effects of negative emotional valence and arousal on memory are separable. Yawn! The cool lesson is that we remember words for sexual body parts and swear words really well, and the memory benefit extends to the context in which they were presented! So, next time you’re having a conversation with someone, and you really want them to remember what you’re saying, use as many swear words and words for sexual body parts as you can.
1Kensinger, E.A., & Corkin, S. (2003). Memory enhancement for emotional words: Are emotional words more vividly remembered than neutral words? Memory & Cognition, 31(8), 1169-1180.