Taboo gesticulations as a response to pain

M. Jacobs, I. van Beest, R. Stephens*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)


Background and aims: 

Prior research indicates that swearing increases pain tolerance and decreases pain perception in a cold pressor task. In two experiments, we extend this research by testing whether taboo hand gesticulations have a similar effect.


Study 1 focused on males and females who, across two trials, submerged an extended middle finger (taboo) and an extended index finger (control) in ice water until discomfort necessitated removal. Study 2 focused exclusively on pain perception in males who, across three trials, submerged their hand, flat, with extended middle finger and with extended index finger, for 45 s each.


In study 1 taboo gesticulation did not increase pain tolerance or reduce pain perception compared with the index finger control condition, as a main effect or as part of an interaction with condition order. While there was a gesture x gender interaction for pain tolerance, this was driven by an increased pain tolerance for the index finger gesture for women but not men. The results of study 2 again showed that taboo gesticulation did not lower pain perception, although it did increase positive affect compared with both non-taboo gesture conditions.


Taken together these results provide only limited evidence that taboo gesticulation alters the experience of pain. These largely null findings further our understanding of swearing as a response to pain, suggesting that the activation of taboo schemas is not sufficient for hypoalgesia to occur.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)397-406
JournalScandinavian Journal of Pain
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2019


  • HAND
  • cold pressor
  • gesticulation
  • pain perception
  • pain tolerance
  • swearing
  • taboo


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