Cog Sci for a High School Student

One class I’m taking this quarter is called “Communicating Science.” The fact that this class exists is exciting because it says that scientists recognize the importance of communicating beyond just to further their own careers (which also certainly requires top-notch communication, in order to receive funding to do research and in order to get that research published).

One assignment we have is to summarize an article in our field for a high school student. This was a fun task, and I’m posting my attempt here. High school students (and non-high school students), have at it – tell me how I did!

The paper is called “Swearing, Euphemisms, and Linguistic Relativity,” and is by Jeffrey Bowers and Christopher Pleydell-Pearce:

Have you ever said a swear and then felt a little amped up after? Maybe your heart started beating a little faster, or you felt your cheeks flush red. It seems that we have a physical reaction to swearing. Is this true? And if so, is it the swear word itself that we react to, or is it the meaning behind the swear word that we’re reacting to? An experiment by researchers named Bowers and Pleydell-Pearce set out to answer these questions.

The researchers measured participants’ skin conductance, which is a measure for how mentally or physically aroused a person is. When we become very aroused (for example if a teacher calls on us in class while we’re not paying attention or we receive a grade that’s much better or worse than we expected), our skin temporarily conducts more electricity. More arousal leads to more skin conductivity. The participants came into a lab and were looking at a computer that flashed different words at them, which they had to repeat. Sometimes those words were swears. Other times, they were neutral words (like glue).

The researchers found that after people said swears, their skin conductance was greater than after they said neutral words. In other words, saying a swear aroused them, even though the context in which they said it was exactly the same as the context in which they said the neutral words. This finding still does not address whether there’s something special about the swear words themselves, or whether their meanings are what arouse people. For example, it could be that thinking about poop (the meaning behind the “swear” shit) is what arouses people, as opposed to the word shit itself.

To answer this question, the researchers included an extra word type in their experiment. In addition to saying the swear words and the neutral non-swear words, sometimes people had to say a swear word euphemism (like f-word). The logic was that if the swear word itself led to the increased skin conductance, these euphemisms would not also do so. But if thinking of the meanings of the swear words was what increased skin conductance, these euphemisms should also do so.

They found that people’s skin conductance was greater to swear words than to their euphemistic counterparts, suggesting that we have a strong physical response to the actual words. This is probably because those words have been closely associated throughout our lives to emotional situations. Euphemisms, on the other hand, are less tied with emotional contexts, and produced a smaller skin response. However, these words still produced more arousal as measured on the skin than the completely neutral words did. These findings suggest that euphemisms that take the place of swears are still somewhat emotionally linked, but not as strongly as the swear words themselves are. Worth considering next time you swear or hear someone swear – your body is probably reacting to saying this word, whether you realize it or not!


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