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Study: Impact of bad language depends on the context

Taboo words, or terminology that is forbidden by society, provokes responses in people that range from increased heart rate to decreased attention and memory. A new study suggests that the reaction of the body and mind to taboo language depends largely on the situation and the nature of each individual.

Previous studies did not capture the impact of taboo language in real-life circumstances. Instead, researchers analyzed psychological and physiological responses to isolated words. Kiel Christianson is a professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Illinois who led the current study.

“In the real world, taboo words are uttered or written by people in specific situations,” said Christianson. “Depending on the identity of the speaker and the appropriateness of the situation in which they say it, a given taboo word may have stronger or weaker psychological and/or physiological effects on the listener.”

Christianson and his team performed assessments on participants as they read sentences containing swear words. Eye-tracking software was used to monitor each individual’s attention levels and memory levels.

80 participants read a series of sentences that depicted “saints” or “sinners.” These figures represented people viewed as likely or unlikely to use taboo words, and were placed in circumstances where swearing could be distinctively viewed as appropriate or inappropriate.

Prior to the observation, participants had completed a survey that revealed their feelings toward swearing. This predetermined attitude was used to gauge the likelihood an individual would be offended by profanity. The assessment also helped establish the circumstances under which each person may view swearing as acceptable.

“The eye-tracking software allowed us to see where and for how long readers’ attention was directed,” Christianson said. “According to binding theory, one of the two popular theories about taboo words’ effects, participants’ recall should have improved when they read sentences containing taboo words. However, according to global resource theory, the other current popular theory, their memory should have been poorer when a sentence included a taboo word.”

The study revealed that the readers paid more attention to taboo language. Context was found to be particularly important to the readers when saints used swear words in appropriate situations, and participants focused more energy on reading both the sentence and the taboo word itself. In these cases, their accuracy in recalling the probe words improved.

“Taken together, the results seem to support both global resource theory and binding theory, but only to an extent,” explained Christianson. “Our finding that a taboo word draws attention – either at the word or sentence level – when a ‘saint’ utters it in a taboo-appropriate situation is not accounted for by either theory.”

For a second study, readers were given a heads up at the beginning of each sentence where a taboo word was about to appear.

“Participants’ memory and attentional resources were diminished as their attention was increasingly allocated to the taboo word,” Christianson said. “Conversely, as their likelihood of taking offense decreased, the details became more memorable due to the emotionally conditioned but nonthreatening taboo word. An utterance’s shock value rises as a function of situational factors and an individual audience member’s propensity for offense.”

Since neither binding theory was fully proven or disproven by this particular research, Christianson proposed combining them into a new theory called situated speaker-hearer individual difference theory. The findings of the study are published in the journal Acta Psychologica.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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