Fragile Little Minds - What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves - Benjamin K. Bergen

What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves - Benjamin K. Bergen (2016)

Chapter 9. Fragile Little Minds

In the summer of 2014, Danielle Wolf was arrested after swearing in front of her two children in a North Augusta, South Carolina, supermarket. Accounts of the event differ. Everyone agrees that she said, “Stop squishing the fucking bread!”1 But there’s some debate over whom she said it to. Wolf claims she uttered it to her husband, who she said was throwing frozen pizzas into their shopping cart, crushing the bread beneath. A witness claims Wolf said it to her children. Regardless, by all accounts the children were within earshot. The witness called the police, and Wolf was arrested for disorderly conduct. According to a North Augusta city ordinance (§ 16-88[12]), disorderly conduct includes “utter[ing], while in a state of anger, in the presence of another, any bawdy, lewd or obscene words or epithets.”2

And lest you think this is just a peculiarity of South Carolina (not that I’m suggesting there’s any reason to expect aberrant behavior in South Carolina),3 something very similar happened in my own backyard, in Southern California, in 2006. Elizabeth Venable, a PhD student at the University of California, Riverside, was at the John Wayne Airport when she was overheard using profanity with a friend. As the Los Angeles Times reports it, a sheriff’s deputy, “noticing several families with small children nearby,” asked Venable to “please watch her language while at the airport.”4 According to the Orange County Register, Venable asked, “Is it against the [expletive] law to say [expletive]?”5 Although the paper didn’t report what the expletives were, we can make an educated guess. That’s when the deputy cited her. Later she was charged with two misdemeanors: disorderly conduct and disturbing the peace. The rule she violated appears to be an Orange County ordinance that applies specifically to John Wayne Airport and prohibits people from being “disorderly, obnoxious, indecent or commit[ting] any act of nuisance.” Given how strongly he objected to profanity in film, I suspect the Duke himself would have approved of this enforcement of the ordinance in his eponymous airport.

To be clear, in neither of these cases was there a question of harm being done to anyone, including children, beyond direct or indirect exposure to profanity. Wolf was not charged with physically or verbally abusing her children; nor was Venable accused of threatening children in the airport terminal. The deed that landed them in court was using the word fuck around children. There’s a lot to say about whether laws like these are constitutional, especially with respect to the constitutionally protected right to freedom of speech. We’ll pick up that thread later in the book. For now, I just mention these cases to highlight our deep-seated belief—entrenched in our legal codes and our social practices—that exposure to profanity harms children.

If profanity causes harm, we should care. Society, its public institutions, and we as individuals all have a responsibility to ensure the well-being of children. Do we need to monitor the language our children are exposed to in order to protect them? If profanity really does hurt children, there should be social and legal consequences—swearing around children might be most appropriately considered a form of child abuse and should be punished accordingly.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) appears to have the answer. In the fall of 2011, it issued a press release warning that exposure to profanity is harmful to children.6 The AAP was relying on a recent study from the prominent and respected medical journal Pediatrics. The AAP’s statement had two parts. First it announced that being exposed to profanity increases children’s use of profanity—in the case of the study, middle school students. That by itself probably wouldn’t surprise many people. We know that kids pick up on what they hear. But the AAP then went on to report that swearing by minors was “a risk factor for increased physical and relational aggression.” Young minds, the AAP would have us believe, are fragile—so fragile that even profanity can damage them.

The media picked the story up quickly and, as they will, amplified it in the retelling. For example, the Daily Mail quoted a media expert who interpreted the results as indicating that “children who use profanity are more likely to make them more aggressive towards others [sic].”7 Medical News Today reported the findings like this: “Bad language and profanity … appear to increase aggression in teenagers.”8 And one article cited the first author of the study in question explaining how it works: “Profanity is kind of like a stepping stone… . You don’t go to a movie, hear a bad word, and then go shoot somebody. But when youth both hear and then try profanity out for themselves it can start a downward slide toward more aggressive behavior.”9 The party line is clear: profanity is dangerous because it’s a gateway form of aggression.

And this is just one way in which profanity has been argued to harm children. The Pediatrics article identified several other possible dangers that profanity poses.10 First, “exposure to profanity can induce a numbing effect on normal emotional responses.” And second, exposure to profanity causes people to “experience negative physiologic responses, such as increased heart rate or shallow breathing.”

If true, these claims are a big deal. For instance, if they’re genuine, then you probably shouldn’t let your twelve-year-old read this book.

So let’s take a close look at the Pediatrics article’s argument. To reiterate, it raises three core issues:

1.Exposure to profanity can cause direct harm to children.

2.Exposure to profanity makes children more likely to use it.

3.Using profanity in turn makes children more likely to act aggressively.

Because this article appeared in the prestigious, peer-reviewed journal Pediatrics, it’s tempting to take these claims at face value. But not everything you read withstands the weight of careful scrutiny. So let’s take a look, as informed consumers of science, at each of these points. How compelling is the evidence? What do we need to protect children from and why?

# $ % !

Point one: Does exposure to profanity directly harm children?

The original 2011 Pediatrics article describes two direct effects of profanity—a numbing effect on normal emotional reactions and an increase in immediate negative physiological reactions. Let’s deal with both of these in turn.

First, numbing. The paper claims, “Studies have found that exposure to profanity can induce a numbing effect on normal emotional responses.”11 This is a pretty bold claim. Where does it come from? The paper itself doesn’t actually demonstrate this—it’s part of the article’s review of the existing scientific literature. But if you follow the references, the Pediatrics article only cites a single study that ostensibly demonstrated emotional numbing, a 1989 article titled “Desensitization to Television Violence: A New Model.”12 Here’s the problem. That article doesn’t mention profanity—at all. It doesn’t contain the word profanity. Or even the word word. Or language. To its credit, the paper is quite interesting: it offers a new theoretical explanation for the finding that exposure to prolonged “scenes of violence,” like “primitive mutilations,” over time leads to decreased emotional reactions in viewers. That may well be true! But the article doesn’t talk about language at all. And it only talks about adult viewers—no mention of children. Here’s the final nail in the coffin: the desensitization article is completely theoretical, so it presents no new data and has nothing to do with language. Nor do any of the twenty-three other articles that it cites. I checked.

You might reasonably be wondering why the Pediatrics study didn’t cite more relevant research showing that profanity numbs emotions. For instance, what about studies demonstrating empirically that profanity desensitizes people to violence? Those articles were not cited because they simply do not exist. There’s no evidence of the numbing effects of profanity—not for adults, not for children. Now, I’m not the first person to note that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. It could well be that exposure to profanity does in fact directly desensitize people to violence and that scientists simply haven’t asked the question in the right way. But at present, there’s no empirical evidence that exposure to profanity dulls children’s reactions to violence. None. The Pediatrics article got that wrong. Good thing we checked.a

I don’t mean to sow mistrust in science generally. But scientists are humans, and humans sometimes get things wrong. So it’s not unreasonable to take a page out of Ronald Reagan’s book: trust, but verify.

The Pediatrics article further claimed that profanity affects well-being by leading people to “experience negative physiologic responses, such as increased heart rate or shallow breathing.”13 This is sort of the opposite of the initial claim, on a shorter scale. It asserts that profanity causes harm in the moment of exposure because people’s bodies react strongly to it. The authors cite no evidence for this claim. But a glance at the literature on the effects of exposure to profanity reveals that the Pediatrics article is half right. There is indeed a lot of evidence that the body reacts to profanity in predictable ways, including increased heart rate and shallow breathing. As you might recall, we discussed this in Chapter 5. For example, one 2006 study measured people’s heart rates while they read neutral words, school-related words, unpleasant words, and taboo words.14 Heart rates started going up about two seconds after participants saw a taboo word and kept going up for several more seconds.

But does an increase in heart rate mean, as the Pediatrics article claims, that people were experiencing a “negative physiologic response”? Not at all. Increased heart rate and shallow breathing both accompany an assortment of fundamentally quite different states. Heart and breathing rates increase when people perform a hard mental task, like solving an arithmetic problem or playing a computer game; they also increase when people are emotionally aroused, whether angry or fearful or overjoyed.15 They increase in response to not just taboo language but pretty much anything that’s arousing. (The word arousal has a specifically sexual connotation in English, but psychologists use it for responsiveness to stimuli in general.) For instance, a study of college students showed that heart and respiration rates both increased during texting, especially while students were sending and receiving a message16(perhaps because they were in a more aroused state when anticipating how their message would be received or what they would find in the response). The point is that these two physiological changes provoked by profanity aren’t intrinsically negative. The problem with the Pediatrics paper’s claim lies not in the facts about the immediate reaction profanity causes in your heart and lungs but in the interpretation of what that reaction means. It means only that people become emotionally aroused when you bring them into a lab and present them with profanity. That’s not surprising. But this in no way implies that profanity causes harm—any more than sending text messages or doing mental arithmetic does.

The closest thing to profanity causing harm that you can find in the literature—and you really need to dig for it—comes from public health studies. But, as we’ll see, even those don’t directly address the question of profanity. A number of these studies ask how different types of caregiver abuse predict children’s psychological and physical health outcomes. For instance, take a large 2010 study that surveyed nearly ten thousand Scandinavian teenagers. It asked them whether they had experienced certain types of abuse in the previous twelve months. Aside from physical abuse, they were also asked about verbal abuse. And this category included questions about “sulking or refusing to talk, insulting or taunting or swearing, throwing objects and threatening with violence.”17 Teens who reported exposure to at least one of these behaviors were pooled together as subject to “verbal abuse,” and as a group they were more likely than those who reported no abuse of any kind to also report psychological problems like depression, anxiety, aggression, and hyperactivity.

Surveys like this one focus our attention—appropriately—on how verbal abuse might affect the psychological well-being of adolescents. There’s ample evidence that abuse correlates with psychological problems. This study showed that verbal abuse, defined in the study’s specific way, correlated with an increase of about 16 percent in aggregate psychological difficulty score—a measure of the psychological problems the adolescents were having. Far more damaging was physical abuse, which correlated with an increase in this score of 37 or 49 percent, depending on whether the abuse was classified as “mild” (e.g., pushing, shoving, shaking, or whipping) or “severe” (e.g., battering, hitting with objects, or kicking). I point out the substantial effects of physical abuse not to marginalize the effects of verbal abuse but just to highlight the different things known to correlate with negative psychological health outcomes in minors and their relative severity. Different types of abuse hurt children to different degrees.

According to this Scandinavian survey, profanity is not demonstrably one of those types of abuse. Studies like this one don’t tell us anything about profanity per se because all such studies slip profanity in with things that are clearly verbal abuse and don’t allow us to tease them apart. In this case, profanity was lumped together with things like threatening with violence, throwing objects, and insulting the child, for instance. And any participant who said yes to any of the verbal abuse questions was categorized as having been subject to verbal abuse. So there’s no way to tell whether these other activities—which clearly constitute abuse—were responsible for the entirety of the effects observed or whether profanity also played a role.

And there’s good reason to suspect that if you were to split out exposure to profanity, you wouldn’t see any effect on child well-being at all. Profanity can, of course, be used for many different purposes. It’s absolutely true that some of those are abusive. But it stands to reason that calling a child worthless or threatening physical harm is likely to increase the child’s depression and hostility, whether profanity makes an appearance or not. Conversely, it’s hard to imagine what harm is likely to come from telling an adolescent his report card is fucking fantastic. Compare that with telling him You’re stupid, and I hate you. You can use profanity positively, and you can use “clean” language abusively. Profanity is orthogonal to abuse.

Verbal abuse of children is, of course, an issue we should be studying more and raising vigilance about. But there’s no evidence either that profanity itself does direct harm to children or that abusive language is more harmful when it includes profanities. Again, I have to raise the specter of the absence of evidence. We know only that we don’t have evidence that profanity hurts children directly. But in the absence of that evidence, one would also expect an absence of the pretense that evidence exists.

# $ % !

So we’ve debunked the Pediatrics article’s first claim: that exposure to profanity harms children directly. Let’s move on to the second claim: that the more children are exposed to profanity, the more they will come to use it themselves.

In the limit, a categorical version of this claim must be true. Children learn language based on what they hear around them. That usually includes profanity. So if they don’t ever hear profanity, they won’t learn it. And although many parents try to shield their children from profanity, this is largely impossible. Parents often try to self-censor when a child arrives, but this can be challenging, as anyone who has stepped on a Lego block in bare feet or been micturated upon at the changing table can attest. Not every swear gets stifled.

And, of course, children learn language not just from their primary caregivers but also from other speakers of the language around them. And these other people often don’t buy into the idea—an aunt, grandfather, older sibling, or friend might not see any problem with an occasional shit here or bastard there. Maybe one of those individuals even secretly—or not-so-secretly—wants to sabotage the whole “linguistic whitewashing for the children’s sake” enterprise. So children are going to be exposed to profanity by people around them.

And also: the Internet.

But the article proposes a more nuanced, quantitative relationship. Does more frequent use of profane words around a child lead that child to use them more? Maybe.

There’s a long history of studying how a word’s frequency in a child’s environment affects acquisition of that word. Children typically begin to understand a few words in their first year of life and utter their first words around their first birthday, as we saw in the last chapter. From there, they’ll typically acquire a few words per month until sometime around eighteen months (give or take six months), when their vocabularies begin to explode in a “word spurt.” By the time they start school, their vocabulary will have ballooned to something like 10,000 words, and by college, it will be five times larger.

And it’s reasonable to think that the words children hear most frequently are also those that they learn earliest and use most. But it’s complicated. Children’s early words tend to name people, animals, things, parts of things (especially body parts), and actions, or to mark social interaction routines (like bye-bye, up, or all gone). The distribution of these sets of words in a child’s early lexicon varies between children and across languages and cultures—English-speaking kids learn more early nouns than their Korean-speaking counterparts, for instance.18 And while many of a child’s first words are frequently occurring ones (the name of a family pet or a word for a commonly experienced object, like a doll, ball, or bottle), a child’s earliest words often do not include the most frequent words in the language. For example, the ten most frequent English words (as measured by the spoken component of the American National Corpus)19 are, starting with the most frequent, the, of, and, to, a, in, it, is, for, and I. Yet none of these are commonly found in a child’s earliest words. In fact, if you look at caregiver speech directed at children (“child-directed speech”), you find that more frequent words are learned slightly later than less frequent ones, in large part because more frequent types of words (like articles, prepositions, and so on) are learned later than less frequent words like nouns.20

So at the very least, we can say that the story is more complicated than merely frequency influencing word learning. In fact, when you split words into different groups—common nouns, words describing people, action words, and so on—you do indeed find that within each category the more frequent words tend to be learned earlier. For example, here’s a graph of the age at which one particular child first used each of his nouns (his age is on the x-axis) plotted against how frequent that word was in the child-directed speech he heard (it’s actually the log of word frequency because frequency effects in language have logarithmic effects).21 You can see that within nouns, the child learns more frequent ones earlier, on average, and then moves on to learn less frequent ones as well.

Each dot represents the first time the child produced a particular noun; more frequent nouns tended to be learned earlier than less frequent ones. Image reproduced from B. C. Roy et al. (2009), used with permission

Each dot represents the first time the child produced a particular noun; more frequent nouns tended to be learned earlier than less frequent ones. Image reproduced from B. C. Roy et al. (2009), used with permission.

Of course, a reasonable person could object to studies like this one. Correlation does not imply causation. So the fact that children tend to learn more frequent words earlier doesn’t entail that frequency is the reason for earlier word learning. Other factors might be in play. For instance, more frequent words are shorter, all things being equal. And children learn shorter words earlier. Maybe frequency plays no causal role.

To know for sure, you’d need to run an experiment: you’d have to manipulate how often children heard particular words and see whether this factor alone, holding all other possible causes constant, affected children’s learning of the words. There have been several such studies. Perhaps the best known took place in the early 1980s.22 Researchers interacted with one- to two-year-old children over the course of four months and, among other things, introduced them to some made-up words, like tete or fus. The words had to be made-up because otherwise the children might encounter them by chance in their normal lives as well. And the researchers carefully manipulated whether, over those four months, the children heard each word ten times or twenty times. And they measured how likely the children were to spontaneously use those words. The result was clear: they learned the frequent words relatively often (on average, kids learned 44 percent of them) and far better than the infrequent ones (29 percent). This effect was observed for both nouns and verbs.

So it seems that a causal relationship exists between how frequent words are in a child’s environment and when he or she will start using them. But how well does this scale? Once an older child knows a larger, more adultlike number of words, say on the scale of tens of thousands, does the frequency with which those words entered the child’s ears affect the frequency with which they come out of his or her mouth?

We don’t have a conclusive answer to this question. We don’t even know exactly what proportion of children know what profane words at what age, because that research hasn’t been done. Typical surveys asking parents about their children’s vocabulary tend to leave out profanity, and parents usually aren’t particularly forthcoming in offering swearwords that their children know. The one source we have is an observational study, in which a set of researchers spent a year recording all taboo words uttered by children around them—predominantly middle-class kids from the northeastern United States.23 The results showed that the swearwords children use change with age. The youngest English-speaking children are more likely to use words like poopy or stupid with the force of profanity, whereas by adolescence they’re using more adultlike profanity: fuck, shit, and so on. We also know that boys and girls swear differently. Oh my God ranks as the most frequent profane expression among girls aged one through twelve, whereas boys in the same range are most likely to use shit.

So we have some hint as to when children use which profane words, but we certainly have no evidence of how frequently they use them. The only exception is the Pediatrics study. And that evidence is rather weak, as we’ll see.

# $ % !

Let’s look at exactly what the Pediatrics study did. The researchers asked students from a large midwestern middle school a series of questions. To get a measure of how much the children were exposed to profanity, they asked the kids to list their three favorite television programs and video games, then rated these for how much profanity they contained. To determine what the children thought about profanity, the researchers asked them to give their opinion about statements like “I think it is okay for me to use profanity in my conversations” on a scale from 1 (never true) to 5 (almost always true). They also wanted to know how often the children actually used profanity, and to measure this they asked them to rate a series of statements like “I use profanity in my conversations with my friends” from 1 (never true) to 5 (almost always true). And finally they wanted to know how aggressive the children were. So they asked them to rate a number of statements describing physical aggression (“I hit, kick, or punch others”) or relational aggression (“I have tried to damage [a] person’s reputation by gossiping about that person”), again on a scale of 1 to 5.

With these data secured, the researchers dug into them to discover any significant correlations among the various measures. And some of them did correlate. In particular, children who reported being exposed to media with more profanity were also more likely to report that they found profanity acceptable. In turn, those who found profanity more acceptable were also more likely to report using profanity. And those who reported using more profanity were also more likely to report acting aggressively. The article interprets this chain of correlations as implicating profanity in aggression: observing profanity affects attitudes about words, attitudes affect the use of those words, and word use affects aggression.

But not so fast. Can a study like this actually tell you whether profanity causes this chain of effects?

Let’s tease them apart, starting with the first couple of steps. Right now we’re focused on the question of whether exposure to profanity increases its use. The study states that adolescents who reported watching shows and playing games with more profanity in them also reported finding profanity more acceptable and using more profanity themselves. Does this answer the question about frequency? Does this mean that exposure to more profanity leads to more use of profanity?

We don’t know, because the study was correlational. It’s not always obvious why correlation doesn’t imply causation, so let me just remind you here. (If this is old hat to you, by all means, skip to the next paragraph.) Here’s a nice example of why you can’t infer causation from correlation.24 Suppose you want to know whether religious faith causes an increase in alcohol consumption. You might try to find an answer by counting the number of bars and the number of churches in each of a large number of US cities. You’d surely find a significant correlation; overall, cities with more bars have more churches. But what’s the right causal interpretation of these data? That religious practice causes drinking? Maybe. I certainly know people who claim to need a drink after church. But the reverse causality is equally possible: maybe increased drinking causes more religious practice. You can come up with a story for this too. Maybe when people drink more, they do more things that they feel they need to atone for. And even worse, it’s equally possible that something totally unrelated to churches or bars—some hidden variable that you didn’t even consider—causes concurrent increases in both. For example, maybe cities with more churches also have more bars because those cities have larger populations in general. In short, a correlation between two things cannot tell us whether they’re causally related or, if they are, in which direction. That’s true whether we’re interested in the number of churches or exposure to profanity.

So let’s apply this reasoning to the Pediatrics study. The data about exposure to profanity, attitudes toward profanity, and use of profanity were all self-reported. So we know that children who reported exposure to media with more profanity also reported more positive attitudes toward using profanity, and in turn those who reported more positive attitudes toward profanity also reported using more profanity. You might be able to spot the hidden variables here. The problem is that all the data rests on the children’s reporting. We don’t have any idea of their actual behaviors, beliefs, or viewing patterns. And these children’s reports could differ from reality for many reasons. Perhaps some of the children intentionally misled the researchers. For example, some children could have been afraid to confess that they were exposed to, had positive attitudes toward, and tended to use profanity. Imagine yourself as a middle school student. A team of researchers from prestigious Brigham Young University shows up asking about profanity and aggression. You might think twice before giving truthful answers. Some children might be more honest than others. And if the less honest children artificially deflated their scores on each of these questions, this would produce the precise correlation that the study found. It would create the false impression of correlations in experience and behavior where the real effect is just a tendency for some children to respond less truthfully across the board. Note that it could also work in the other direction: some children could have been boasting about both the shows they liked to watch and the amount they swore. This too would create a spurious correlation in exactly the same direction: children who reported watching more profane media would boast of more positive attitudes toward profanity and more profanity use.

This is just one of many possible hidden variables that might describe the actual causes underlying the correlations that the study observed. For instance, maybe children with caregivers who don’t believe there’s anything wrong with swearing both allow their children to watch media with profanity and are more likely to encourage or permit its use.

And there’s also the problem of reverse causation to deal with. It could very well be, as the article suggests, that exposure to profanity causes increased use of profanity. But what about the opposite direction? Maybe children who swear are more strongly attracted to profane television shows because such programming sounds more like what they sound like or what they want to sound like.

So does increased exposure to profanity lead to greater use of profanity? The noun and verb research discussed earlier suggests that it’s certainly possible that children exposed to more profanity will learn it earlier. But that doesn’t imply that they’ll use it more, and the correlational study we’ve just been discussing is causal Swiss cheese. However, just to see where the argument goes, let’s suspend disbelief and stipulate, for the moment, the possibility that children will use profanity more the more often they’re exposed to it. The really important part of the story is whether using more profanity causes harm to children. That’s next.

# $ % !

The Pediatrics study discovered a correlation not just between profanity exposure and use but also between how much children reported using profanity and how much they reported engaging in both physical and relational aggression. This part of the study suffers from the very same problems we just identified. For one thing, there’s still the hidden variable caused by self-reporting. As we saw before, correlations between self-reported variables might tell you more about how the respondents deal with the survey than about the behavior it asks them about. People in a study like this might not tell the truth for a variety of reasons. Adolescents who were more candid about aggression might also have been more candid about the media they were exposed to.

Many other possible hidden variables could be behind the correlations between profanity use and aggression. Which of these seem plausible to you? Maybe children exposed to more profanity also happen to be exposed to more violence in media, which causes them to be more aggressive. Or maybe children exposed to more violence in real life both seek out media with more profanity and also act out more aggressively. Or maybe children who come from families that are more predisposed to aggressive behavior for any of a number of reasons (medical, cultural, socioeconomic, genetic, and so on) both seek out more profane media and also exhibit more aggression. I’m not committing to any of these as the single, real cause of aggressiveness. But if you think any of these are plausible, and actually even if you don’t, they reveal the hidden variable problem inherent in correlational studies. People come with baggage. And some of that baggage might be causally related in a systematic way to the things you’re interested in.

The people who do correlational studies cleverly try to control for those other factors by measuring and including them in their models. So if you believe that exposure to violence in media could be a confounding factor—it correlates with exposure to profanity and could explain some amount of aggression—then you measure not only how much profanity but also how much violence children are exposed to. The two will probably correlate, but the key point is that you can measure exactly how much media violence correlates with child aggressiveness, and you can pull that apart in a statistical model from the amount that profanity exposure correlates with child aggressiveness. The authors of the Pediatrics study tried to do this. But to know that profanity exposure per se and not any of these other possible confounding factors is responsible for increased reports of aggressiveness, you’d need to do the same thing not just for exposure to media violence, as the authors did, but for every other possible confounding factor, which they did not. That means that the real culprits—the real causes for increased aggression, if in fact there are any—may still be out there.

And once again we have to deal with the possibility of reverse causation. Suppose we find that people who swear more really are also more aggressive. Which do you think is more likely? That using more profanity causes people to be more aggressive, as the article posits? Or that being more aggressive causes people to use more profanity? I would bet on the latter. In fact, there’s even some experimental evidence of this. A study conducted at Keele in the United Kingdom asked whether feeling more aggressive would cause people to swear more.25 Researchers randomly assigned participants to play one of two video games, a golf game or a first-person shooter (a first-person shooter involves navigating through a virtual world and trying to kill people with weapons like guns, missile launchers, and knives). Participants were then asked to name as many profane words as they could in one minute. The result was that after the (violent, aggressive) first-person shooter, they were able to name significantly more profane words than after the golf game.

The upshot is that although suggestive, the Pediatrics study is only lightly so. In the way that if I polled a bunch of schoolchildren about their favorite color and found that the ones who liked red were more likely to also say they played sports frequently, that would suggest that color preferences cause sports participation. So, very, very lightly.

The current state of our knowledge is this. We have no meaningful evidence that profanity causes aggression, just as we have no evidence that it causes changes in emotional responsiveness. Correlational studies don’t help. To know for sure, you’d need to run an experiment, which is the best way to ask a question about causation. You overcome the many limitations of correlational studies by manipulating one thing and seeing whether it has an effect on some other thing. If you do your job well (and designing experiments is not easy), then you can conclude whether or not the thing you manipulated caused a change in the thing you measured. The example everyone is familiar with is randomized drug trials. You give people a drug or a placebo (that’s what you manipulate), and you measure the effects on their health. Because you’ve randomly assigned people to the placebo or the drug condition, a meaningful difference between the two groups in terms of health outcomes means that the drug caused a difference in health compared with the placebo. It can’t be the reverse because the arrow of time doesn’t work that way. And as long as you make sure that the only difference between the groups is whether or not they receive the experimental drug, then you know there aren’t any hidden variables. You can conquer correlation through experimentation.

So an experiment about profanity and aggression might go something like this. You take kids and randomly assign them to conditions that expose them to more or less profanity. There are no other differences between the groups. And after sufficient exposure, you measure how aggressively the children in each group act in some social task. Maybe you have a bully take away a child’s favorite toy and see how the kid responds, or something like that. And you look to see whether the kids who, through no fault of their own, were randomly assigned to greater profanity exposure act more aggressively as a consequence.

As you may already be thinking, there’s an ethical dilemma here, which may be the reason this study hasn’t ever been conducted. In order to run this study, there has to be a reason to think that the hypothesis might be true—that increased exposure to profanity will increase aggression. But increased aggressiveness could be harmful to the child and those around him or her. So if the study found the effect it was set up to test for, it would harm half the participants. And those participants are children, who in general you’d prefer not to harm. As a result, the risk would outweigh the potential benefit, making a study like this a nonstarter.

I posed this problem to the students in my lab, and one of them came up with a clever way around this problem.b Because the experiment I described is ethically impossible, suppose instead you took the opposite tack. What if some people were already opting-in to exposure to some profanity-laden media. Say, people who preordered some video game with swearing in it or who decided to watch an R-rated movie. What if you could convince the software company or the movie distributor to randomly send users one of two versions that differ only in the amount of profanity used. One is the normal version, with all the profanity; the other, an expurgated version without profanity. And then after these people have watched the film or played the game, you measure their aggressiveness in some social task. Neat idea. And it’s totally ethical in that the people will be exposed to the video game regardless, and if the hypothesis is correct, then the half of them who get the expurgated version will experience lower risk by dint of being in the experiment. It’s a win-win (as long as the only hypothesis in play is that more profanity makes people more aggressive).c

It was Tyler Marghetis, for what it’s worth.

The only drawback I can come up with is the following. Suppose exposure to profanity actually decreased aggression. For instance, suppose that people seek out profanity specifically in order to have an outlet to deal with feelings of aggression. And what if shielding them from profanity actually deprives them of this outlet, thereby causing them to find other outlets for their aggression? If there’s reason to believe this (and to date there’s effectively as much evidence for this position as for the reverse effect), then the study again becomes unethical. Because as soon as it’s possible that your manipulation will harm children, there had better be some really remarkable payoff for conducting the study. This imaginary study would not, for instance, cure cancer.

The upshot is this: If exposure to profanity increases aggression through increased acceptance and use of profanity, that fact is in principle knowable. There’s an experiment to do. It’s complicated, but it’s doable. But the current state of our knowledge is basically that we have none. We don’t know—although there’s reason to believe it from other findings in language learning—whether increased exposure to profanity increases children’s use of profanity. We don’t know whether increased use of profanity increases aggression, and there’s as much evidence of this as of any other possible relation between these variables: that increased aggression increases profanity use or that increased profanity use decreases aggression. In other words, we have no idea.

# $ % !

So let’s take a step back. If there’s no evidence of profanity causing harm, then why would so many people—including researchers, journalists, parents, and legislators—believe it? Why would the American Academy of Pediatrics issue a press release describing this research? Why would it seem so plausible?

I think two things are going on here. The first has to do with moral thinking. Many people believe profanity is immoral. Bad words are bad. We’ll get into why people think that in a later chapter, but I want to focus here on the cognitive consequences of thinking that something is bad. If you believe that something is good, you’re more likely to believe other good things about it, and if you think something is bad, you’re more likely to believe other bad things about it. The positive version of this, known as the halo effect,26 has been studied for a century.27 The negative version, the horns effect (halo: angel; horns: devil), appears to apply to what you think about everything from people to products. Politicians use the halo effect; if they dress well, sound smart and approachable, and look friendly, then you’re likely to think they’re good at their job.28 Marketers use it too.29 People who like Apple Computer, Inc., for instance, are more likely to think good things about its individual products—that they’re high in quality or useful or well designed—than the products of a company they don’t know anything about. And something similar is probably going on with profanity. People think shit is a bad word. So they’re likely to believe that it can also be dangerous, cause harm, and have other negative attributes—more so than they’d believe these things for a “good” word, like please or thank you. The bar to convince people that sir or ma’am increases aggression would be far higher than a single correlational, self-reporting study.

People might also be prone to believe bad things about profanity due to a second cognitive consequence of negative beliefs: rationalization. When people have unfounded moral beliefs, they often come up with explanations for them. Those explanations (“rationalizations” or “justifications”) may or may not be true, but they do make people feel better about their beliefs. If you believe something is bad, like profanity, but don’t really have a good reason why, then you might be strongly attracted to explanations that would justify your belief. If profanity increases aggression, that justifies your belief that profanity is bad. This sort of reasoning from back to front leads people to overlook logical weaknesses in an argument as long as it supports something they already believe.

People who believe that profanity is bad are psychologically biased to believe a variety of other bad things about it, like that it increases aggression or numbs normal emotional responses. In essence, people who believe profanity is bad conclude that little minds are fragile things, perverted and deformed by the linguistic deviants around them. But this gives children too little credit. While the effects of abuse are real, there’s every reason to believe that children’s minds are resilient to profanity. The real fragility resides in the minds of those adults who are easily swayed to believe in the deleterious effects of profanity.