Recently, I’ve been seeing variations on a meme floating around my social media feeds. The most common version says something to the effect of “Science says that intelligent people swear more than stupid motherfuckers” (see image) or some variation thereof. The meme is meant to be a counter claim to the conventional belief about swearing that was voiced by so many of our parents, teachers, and religious leaders whenever we mistakenly uttered a shit! in front of them. “Only dumb people swear,” they’d admonish, or “Smart people know better ways to express themselves than by swearing.” If you were a child like me, such comments were met with an internal eye-roll and a quiet note to self to avoid swearing again when Mom was in earshot.
If it were true — if swearing really was a marker of intelligence — then it would be a wonderful vindication of my ten-year-old potty mouth. But if you’re a regular reader of Skeptoid, I’m sure you already see where this is going.
The claim going around the Internet right now appears to be based on a single study that was published in the journal Language Sciences in December 2015. And the study did not, in any way, shape, or form, support the notion that people who swear are any more intelligent than those who do not swear. In fact, there’s no way the study could have shown that, as it never measured the amount of swearing people do over the course of a day, or an hour, or a conversation.
Instead, what the study did was measure a trait known as “verbal fluency,” or the ability of people to recall and properly express words. In this case, that meant getting the study participants to rattle off as many different swear words as they could within a time frame; then, the participants were asked to recall a list of unrelated words, such as kinds of animals. By measuring how many words the participants could recall in each category, plus doing some related assessment testing, the researchers scored the overall verbal fluency of each participant.
What the researchers ultimately figured out was that people who had better overall verbal fluency were also able to recall and recite a larger variety of different swear words. Or to put it more simply, people who know more words, also know more swear words. To which I would add, “duh!”, since it is absolutely rational to assume the more one learns language overall, the more they will also learn swear words, and thus be more able to rattle off a list of them regardless of how often they, themselves, use them. And since the study did nothing to assess how nimble these speakers were with their swear words, nor how often they slipped in swear words when they spoke, nor any of the other things besides basic vocabulary upon which one might even assess “actively swearing = more intelligent”, there’s no basis to the claim in the popular meme.
It is true that verbal fluency is considered one aspect of what is sometimes called “linguistic intelligence”, i.e. one’s ability to speak, read, and write with a high level of skill; however, one’s verbal fluency says nothing about ones “intelligence” in the popular sense. And even if we allow that it’s still a form of intelligence, the best we can garner from the science is that “linguistically intelligent people know more swear words.”
So why is everyone so confused? The problem, as is so often the case nowadays, is that the online media machine did a poor job of reporting on this study. Knowing clickbait when they saw it, revenue-starved news sites led with awful headlines like “People Who Curse are Smarter than People Who Don’t“, “Swearing a Lot Means You Are More Intelligent“, and “Science Proves Swearing Means You’re Smarter.” All of those headlines are demonstrably wrong, but I’m sure they got a lot of click-throughs and improved that week’s bottom line. And since a depressing number of people don’t bother to read past the headline anymore, it was a foregone conclusion that those shoddy headlines would become popular knowledge.
This is just one study, and as far as I have found it’s the only study to measure such a thing. Scientists just aren’t that interested in “swearing vs. smarts”. They’re far more interested in things like when people start learning to swear (as young as two or three), why swear words carry the linguistic punch they do (they have a compact efficiency of meaning compared to other words), who swears (extroverts are more likely to swear than introverts), and which swear words are commonly used (80% of swearing consists of the same ten words* ). There’s also an interesting thread of research on the cathartic effect of swearing and how it may benefit both pain perception and emotional health in some people. Swearing is actually an intellectually interesting issue. Smarts just don’t enter into it.
Of course, the fact that this claim isn’t true doesn’t automatically make our parents and pastors any wiser. All it takes is a little poking to realize that, when our parents and pastors were admonishing us not to swear back in the day, what they were really trying to tell us to be more socially acceptable. The problem, in their view, was that lower class people swear and (in their minds) lower class people were less intelligent; therefore people who wanted to be of a better class needed to avoid speaking like the ignorant masses. In other words, it was (and remains) a classist attitude that’s trying to police tone and behavior as a means of establishing cultural superiority. Swearing says nothing about one’s relative intelligence.
Sorry, swearing fans, but your insistence on using fuck every three words is not a sign that you’re smart. On the bright side, it doesn’t mean you’re dumb either. And hey, at least you can feel good about showing off your big vocabulary whenever you slip a goddamn or an asshat into a sentence.