If You Want Someone To Remember What You Said, Cuss

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.

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Interesting pun (unintended, I'm sure): "The lesson Kensinger and Corkin take away from this is booooooring"
n : a crude, uncouth, ill-bred person lacking culture or refinement

A synonym is "vulgarian". I guess K & C would say a synonym would be memorable lout.


I suppose this explains why Carlin's Seven Dirty Words bit is so memorable. ;)

Awesome! I remember that paper now. When I was writing this, I vaguely remembered another paper on the cuss words and memory, but couldn't remember it. Apparently having all those nasty words in it didn't enhance my memory for its source.

I'm sure there's a whole bunch of psycholinguistic literature on swear words and taboo that I'm not familiar with, but I always remember a section in Pim Levelt's Speaking where he talks about research on prearticulartory editing in speaking (i.e. evidence of last-minute changes to the articulatory plan which would take place after the phonological planning of the utterance).

Unsurprisingly, Motley (1980) showed that the words [tool kits] are more likely to come out as [cool tits] in the presence of an attractive experimenter than otherwise. A participant can, of course, partially recover from such errors, and produce [cool kits] instead, saving him some embarrassment. Amazingly, Motley et al (1982) showed that this error was indeed an exchange between the onsets and not simply an anticipation of the /k/ segment because when [cool kits] came out in the presence of the attractive experimenter, the participant's galvanic skin response indicated a measure of arousal!

So in cases like this, there's evidence that:
1) people can be induced to exchange the onsets of the two words based on the sexiness of the experimenter
2) realize that one of the words ([tits]) is taboo and get all hot and bothered, and
3) slyly fix up his error before saying it!

Sure, this is more about theories of speech production than taboo words per se, but it's bloody cool!

Andrew, that's awesome! I didn't know Motley's stuff before. Now I've got a pile of his articles on verbal slips (thanks, so much, for adding to my already bloated reading list!).

oh, there's interminable and more recent literate on what slips can tell us! If you don't have it, you should check out Willem Levelt's Speaking that I mentioned above. It basically compiles a reasonable model of speech production using a huge mass of research from all kinds of different teams as evidence. Unfortunately, it's from 1989, but I think it's a good introduction (if you're not already introduced! I don't know how much of this kinds of psycholinguistics you know!)

Oh man. This makes me happy.