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Study Finds Link Between Profanity and Honesty (neurosciencenews.com)
101 points by baalcat on Jan 16, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 68 comments

"The research found that those who used more profanity were also more likely to use language patterns that have been shown in previous research to be related to honesty, such as using pronouns like “I” and “me”."

I wish they gave a source for the relationship between using these pronouns and telling the truth.

Also, just looking at facebook users introduces a bloody selection bias.

  I wish they gave a source for the relationship between using these pronouns and telling the truth.
The explanation is given in the paper, citing another study. Thankfully it's not paywalled (hooray for open access!) As the HN article is a summary of the academic paper [1], it probably omitted the detail for brevity.

Here's what the paper says:

  "The honesty of the status updates written by the participants was assessed
   following the approach introduced by Newman, Pennebaker, Berry, and Richards
   (2003) using LIWC. Their analyses showed that liars use fewer first-person
   pronouns (e.g., I, me), fewer third-person pronouns (e.g., she, their), fewer
   exclusive words (e.g., but, exclude), more motion verbs (e.g., arrive, go),
   and more negative words (e.g., worried, fearful; Newman, Pennebaker, Berry, &
   Richards, 2003)."

[1] http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/194855061668105...

w/r/t selection bias, "As of the third quarter of 2016, Facebook had 1.79 billion monthly active users." https://www.statista.com/statistics/264810/number-of-monthly...

Their sample pool covers better than 25% of the human population.

While that's a very large pool, it's almost certainly not random.

What sample size or methodology for the question at hand would satisfy you at this point?


A huge sample size does not necessarily mean a good sample. While it's difficult to say what the impact of sampling only from a group of people who self-select into a given population, it's clearly a bias. If a quarter of the population self-selects into Facebook, I'd prefer a sample that includes three times as many people who didn't.

If nothing else, it's worth considering the demographics: within the USA, women use Facebook at a higher rate than men; people with some college education use Facebook at a higher rate than either college graduates or adults who've never been to college; Facebook use rate is roughly negatively correlated with income level; use of Facebook is negatively correlated with age (http://www.pewinternet.org/2016/11/11/social-media-update-20...). So the leftover US population skews male and slightly higher-income than the Facebook population. And globally, Facebook use is correlated with national wealth (minus some outliers). So there's clearly a sampling bias, and that's worth understanding.

That said, whether the results would be any different is hard (impossible?) to say without actually trying a different sampling methodology, and I suspect the results from this study are valid, sampling bias notwithstanding.

A few hundred randomly selected people would give more certainty than billions that aren't randomly selected.

This should not be surprising.

I'd say two things, which are related:

1) Profanity itself is a form of crude honestly - in any remotely genteel social setting - 'profanity' is usually politically costly. Would you swear in an interview? No.

Ok - there are some times when 'people in power' can swear as a form of strength/power projection - but that aside ...

People who 'control' their behaviour mostly to 'be polite' - will use that communication control to gain political favour in every little social interaction. Some do it aggressively.

We all know this kind of person.

So - the 'swearers' are just using less 'filter', and so 'what you see' is really more likely their actual thoughts - 'no filter applied'.

2) If you step outside of professional circles and hang out with 'working class types' (I don't mean to be crude with generalizations) - like guys on a construction crew - you'll find that these people swear sometimes. I'm originally from a small town, a lot of working class types there - and if there are only guys around, you'll hear some cussing. These people generally don't have 'learned filters' that most professionals would use to communicate - because there is no reason why they should have developed those filters. They're just 'honest' by nature.

I've always kind of felt this way.

'Smooth communicators' are the one's you have to worry about :)

"Would you swear in an interview? No."

Yes. And if someone held it against me it's unlikely to be a place I want to work.

Interesting. I mean, do what works for you but to me, swearing in an interview shows weird judgement. I would not put a lot of confidence in someone who makes that choice to be easy to work with, professional, and treat their coworkers with respect. I'd just think, you know, this asshole doesn't want to have a respectful relationship, and doesn't really get this situation. I swear plenty but I hold it in at work. I've never interviewed somebody who swore in the interview (a couple words wouldn't be a big deal I guess)... But I have interviewed people who gave off other signs of poor judgement. One of the things I really need in my (non-tech) industry is people I can trust to independently make good choices in many situations among different kinds of people. Surely most employers need that.

Well, I'd hold it against you (well, unless I set the precedent by swearing first...) :)

In many professional settings (e.g. when in front of a client), where you may not be familiar with the social norms of those you're interacting with, the ability to effectively code switch is critical. I see that as part of basic professional judgement.

So, absolutely, with your co-workers, swear away if that's part of the culture.

But in a setting with someone unfamiliar? Like, say, an interview? Sorry buddy, but there's a lot of shops where that'll count against you.

It really depends on the job. If your priorities are of a political nature, then that's a reasonable expectation.

If you're hiring me for an engineering position and you can't handle some harmless swearing, then you're really not sharing in my engineering priorities. Here it's just pointless culture policing and power playing.

Accepting that folks you don't know might not share your values, and adjusting accordingly isn't "political".

It's basic respect and professionalism.

Now, from your perspective, you might think you're just testing the employer. That is, if they'll put up with your swearing in the interview, then it might be a better value fit. And that may be true.

I'm simply suggesting that you may end up disqualified for positions where you might otherwise fit, not because swearing itself is deemed inappropriate, but because, in that specific setting, to the interviewer it suggests poor judgement.

No, what you're missing here is that I wouldn't swear unless I had a good reason to, and a good reason wouldn't likely turn up in an interview. I don't go around swearing in interviews for the fun of it. But if I do swear, and you think it's a major problem, then your priorities would be wrong.

I do realize that judgement goes both ways. I'm not going to blame someone for being foolish, but I will blame them for hiding it when they could instead learn from it.

So the original exchange at the top of this thread was as follows:

"Would you swear in an interview? No."

Yes. And if someone held it against me it's unlikely to be a place I want to work.

You were not the person who replied this way. My reading, at this point, is that your answer would be "maybe, but only if my read if the circumstances lead me to feel it was justified".

And on this you and I actually agree!

In fairness, I assume you would still try to swear less in an interview, no?

I read the interviewer carefully, which often leads me to be comfortable with some amount of profanity.

This is actually pretty much the same approach I take all the time, with everyone.

Makes sense.

People can handle a lot of context. It'd be totally unsurprising if the people you interact with professionally swear a lot more in other contexts.

Totally fucking true because, when I was a kid, I caught such hell from my parents for lying that I've become a pathological truth teller. And I cuss, a lot.

Did your parents cuss while giving you hell, because that might be why you are cussing today. Also, do you have kids? Do you give them hell for whatever reason?

Anecdotally, I swear a lot, but my parents never did when I was growing up, at least in front of me. I started swearing like a sailor pretty young and I've never really stopped. I swear a lot in the workplace. My relationship with my parents has relaxed a lot over the years, and we enjoy swearing somewhat gratuitously in each other's company.

Some more anecdata: I realize that when I am in the company of strangers or acquaintances, a bit of casual swearing goes a long way to create a relaxed, open environment. I've had some pretty candid conversations with otherwise very serious people that I otherwise would have been very nervous or apprehensive about.

It seems like a straightforward relation. Less self-filtering results in more honesty. Honesty is often not what people want to hear, and that includes profanity.

Profanity is about emotional honesty. Swearing implies anger. Replacing "that fucker beat up my friend everyday" with "that ill-intentioned person beat up my friend everyday" is emotionally inaccurate.

Perhaps, but I think the words are far less important than other means of emotional expression.

You could easily say that first line like you're joking about a friend, and the latter with the cold malice of hatred.

I always liked that Linus Torvalds uses so much of profanity (he also stated that cursing is part of Finnish culture). It alienated some people (see https://goo.gl/JBESqf):

> Sarah, first off, I don't have that many tools at hand. Secondly, I simply don't believe in being polite or politically correct. And you can point at all those cultural factors where some cultures are not happy with confrontation (and feel free to make it about gender too—I think that's almost entirely cultural too). And please bring up "cultural sensitivity" while at it. And I'll give you back that same "cultural sensitivity". Please be sensitive to _my_ culture too.

> Because if you want me to "act professional," I can tell you that I'm not interested. I'm sitting in my home office wearing a bathrobe. The same way I'm not going to start wearing ties, I'm also not going to buy into the fake politeness, the lying, the office politics and backstabbing, the passive aggressiveness, and the buzzwords. Because THAT is what "acting professionally" results in: people resort to all kinds of really nasty things because they are forced to act out their normal urges in unnatural ways.


My opinion is that people who are not flexible enough to accept few fucks in the conversation are generally those that I don't want to work with - they are usually borring to me and often don't convey impact of the problem with appropriate strength.

Political correctness is such paradoxical bullshit. Ofcourse, as in any domain, people who are extreme in such behavior are generally harmful but that should not be argument against anything.

Besides being more honest, recent study found that profane people have more diverse vocabulary (https://goo.gl/GIEhKD) and are probably perceived as being more intelligent.

A lot of reading for precious little information:

Source: University of Cambridge.

Writing in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science a team of researchers from the Netherlands, the UK, the USA and Hong Kong

"The international team of researchers set out to gauge people’s views about this sort of language in a series of questionnaires which included interactions with social media users.

"In the first questionnaire 276 participants were asked to list their most commonly used and favourite swear words. They were also asked to rate their reasons for using these words and then took part in a lie test to determine whether they were being truthful or simply responding in the way they thought was socially acceptable. Those who wrote down a higher number of curse words were less likely to be lying.

"A second survey involved collecting data from 75,000 Facebook users to measure their use of swear words in their online social interactions. The research found that those who used more profanity were also more likely to use language patterns that have been shown in previous research to be related to honesty, such as using pronouns like “I” and “me”. The Facebook users were recruited from across the United States and their responses highlight the differing views to profanity that exist between different geographical areas. For example, those in the north-eastern states (such as Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey and New York) were more likely to swear whereas people were less likely to in the southern states (South Carolina, Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi)."

Doesn't strike me as a terribly strong result.

If you were tasked with it, how would you construct further research in the future to further test these results?

There is very little profanity in these thoughtful and analytical comments. You're all fucking liars.

It'd be interesting to see this broken down by vernacular, doing analysis on word frequency and other identifiers in language.

Does this make Samuel L. Jackson's characters the most honest? He sure speaks how he feels when in those roles.

the fuck?

About fuckin time.

The people who cannot spend energy to control themselves and therefore curse are less prone to using self-control-dependent strategy of lies and deception.


I don't swear because I lack self-control. I swear because those words are powerful and useful. "Bullshit" is an immeasurably better word than any of the alternatives. Some people are entirely deserving of the label "arsehole" or "bastard".

I fundamentally distrust people who don't swear. To me it has always signalled priggishness, timidity and conformity. People who see swearing as a sign of poor education or a limited vocabulary are, in my experience, invariably petty, snobbish and bigoted.

If I want an honest opinion, I'll ask someone who isn't afraid to speak plainly. If I need someone to help me out in a difficult situation, I'll call on someone who swears like a wounded pirate - they're not going to be afraid to get their hands dirty.

We are sacks of meat that fuck and piss and shit. We always will be. If you want to pretend otherwise then good luck to you, but I don't trust you for a second.

As someone who grew up in a home in which no one swore or used profanity, I'd argue that for me to have adopted common vulgarity from the schoolyard would've been 'conformity.' That, and I was fully capable of kicking the ass of any bully who challenged my being too 'timid' to speak inappropriately. Indeed, vulgarity from privileged white young males is a cliche of token rebellion. Or it was a generation ago--kind of like surburban white kids affecting gangsta slang today. You're dismissed.

Swearing may be honest, because you speak what you think. At the same time it may be like a fire hose. I would prefer more distilled thoughts.

One of my previous superiors sweared a lot, but when there was something to clarify the conversation took another route. I could ask him a question and then he would freeze and not even a sound would come out of his mouth. The silence could take such a while that I would start to think that maybe he haven't heared me. Then he would slowly and steadly respond - usually not needing to stop midsentence to reformulate (as I usually do). Those calm responses usually did not contain swearing. There where a few colleagues that would just not stop talking until he would respond and then he would tell them to shut up.

I swear in certain contexts, especially when I'm using a computer, and I find this statement utterly ridiculous. There are many reasons why people might prefer not to swear - how you were brought up; because you think it exhibits a certain sense of self-control; because you take delight in using circumlocutory expressions which avoid swearing (I'd be more interested, frankly, in a speaker who says "unmitigated bunkum" than one who says "bullshit"); because you work in a context in which swearing is inappropriate... To say that all of those reasons make people "priggish" or, worse, untrustworthy is just very silly.

And I'd so like to have your trust.

The people who need not spend energy to control their cursing have more energy left to lie.

These kinds of after-thought rationalizations can always work both ways.

If you find yourself never surprised by any finding, you are probably doing this a lot.

Lying in the abstract is not a sign of self-control, nor is swearing a sign of a lack of it. Swearing and/or lying in specific contexts, possibly. Considering the context is facebook, i doubt swearing is a good proxy for lack of self-control

I don't think this should be downvoted, I think it is essentially correct.

Only people who are 'learned communicators' have the amount of self control to both 'not swear' but also use their communication skills to curry favour, which may involve manipulating the truth subtly or egregiously.

About 50% of the time, the 'raw truth' is a little rugged, and smart communicators learn how to 'change the tone' of information so that it's more palatable.

I don't think it's a matter of 'energy' at all, it's just behaviour.

Also consider this one:

Germans are known for being 'more direct' - and to an 'Anglo' person, their directness can sometimes be interpreted as 'blunt' (You've heard the saying 'honest to a fault'?), sometimes ruffling feathers. The German may perceive Anglo 'redirection' as somewhat deceptive.

But in German - there is usually only 'one way' to say something - the language is very strict, and you usually don't have a lot of wiggle room. So - aside from any cultural issues - language itself really shapes the way information is communicated.

It has nothing to do with self control. It is a matter of culture. Right now, I am not swearing at all. But in other contexts, I swear easily. Because swearing has different value in different contexts. Here, it doesn't add much.

And when I do swear, it's not for lack of self control. It's because I'm making a stand about what my priorities are. Which are usually that the subject of the discussion is far more important than the manner in which it is discussed or the personal, fleeting discomfort of any bystanders or participants.

This 'learned communicators' thing is silly.

Pretty much everyone knows they aren't supposed to swear at a priest. Many of the ones that do anyway are being transgressive.

Obviously everyone knows not to swear in front of their Mothers-in-laws or in front of customers ...

But some people are far and away better communicators than others.

Far and away.

It's the big soft skill that a lot of 'inside only people' don't have, and often don't recognize or value in 'outside facing people' at the company :).

90% of psychology looks obvious afterwards. Probably 90% of science.

I don't buy it. I know people with clean language that I don't trust, and friends who swear that I do. But in general I see profanity and anger as a red flag in relationships to be heeded, because it shows a general lack of respect towards others.

Next thing you know, evil will be good and good will be evil. Oh, wait a sec...

Anecdotally, you have some supporting evidence but ultimately don't trust it. That seems silly.

You also conflate anger and profanity. Which is clearly a load of shit. They are distinct things.

I doubt it is cut and dried, but I'm interested in the research. And I distrust it as much because it confirms my general beliefs. And that should be a red flag for everyone.

> a load of shit

Your comment is anecdotal proof that profanity doesn't have jack shit to do with anger.

I realized later that I left out a smiley, or better evidence of humor. Hopefully it was taken as intended by everyone!

It's all good :) I'm simply stating my opinion, and I'll hold to it. Profanity and anger are not two "qualities" I look for in people, either as co-workers or friends. I'm not saying I will not work with or be friends with people who swear, but it is simply a red flag for me.

Nothing wrong with red flags. Just remember to question your own flags periodically. And try not to let any one dominate decisions. My guess would be that it becomes easier to deceive people that have stuck to a given rubric for a long time.

I think of it as periodic regularization. Though, easier said than done.

Of course, which is why they're called flags, not judgements or decisions. I do have friends who swear all the time. They know I don't, but that's my choice not theirs. When I catch those friends censoring themselves around me, I remind them that I "want them to just be themselves around me".

fucking used as an adverb is an intensifier which quite plainly does often express anger. If I say to my colleague, "Have you finished that task yet?", or I say, "Have you fucking finished that task yet?", which is angrier?

Tone conveys more than the words, there. Consider, you can say that with amusement or exasperation as easily as anger.

This is somewhat self fulfilling and prone to confirmation bias, though. For me, it is just as often for shock/surprise. Probably more so just plain frustration.

What does intrigue me is when people have substitution words they often use. Unless you believe in magic, I don't understand the logic.

Yeah, those are called 'minced oaths' https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minced_oath

Consider reading "On Bullshit" by Princeton's Harry Frankfurt. A distinguished moral philosopher, he regards bullshit itself as evidence of disrespect, not calling it out as such.


title should be "Frankly, Do We Give a Damn? Study Finds Link Between Profanity and Perceived Honesty"

The question part was fine to drop, but removing the word "perceived" substantially changes the claim.

The word "perceived" was not in the article title, and thus the claim is unchanged... whether the article title is accurate or not is open for debate :)

I like how comedian Jerry Seinfeld put it: "If you have to use profanity in a joke then you failed to nail it." Applies to other things as well. It may be a (crude) indication of honesty, but it is a clear indication of failure.

Yeah but here is the thing about Jerry,he is the only clean comic who is funny at all. Outside of him almost all the great comedians will throw a fuck or a shit in there. Dave Chappelle and Louie CK are far from failures.

Bob Newhart would like a word with you. Specifically, as a one-sided phone conversation.

Jim Gaffigan! Mitch Hedberg, by and large, too. But yes there are lots of comedians who swear profusely and are/were great.

Bill Cosby was pretty funny in his day

Sure. But my point really was that use of profanity in most endeavors is a sign of failure.

Please, Carlin was one of the best comedians... And fuck me if he didn't swear his ass off.

I went to a Carlin show once. He was witty. But overall the impression he left was that of a vulgar bitter man.

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