Does swear­ing in­di­cate hon­esty?

The Denver Post - - PERSPECTIVE - By Ben­jamin Ber­gen

Many Trump sup­port­ers were over the moon at An­thony Scara­mucci’s col­or­ful phone call to The New Yorker magazine, in which the newly named (now-de­posed) White House com­mu­ni­ca­tions di­rec­tor claimed that un­like other mem­bers of the ad­min­is­tra­tion, he was not try­ing to fel­late him­self.

On The_­don­ald red­dit thread, for ex­am­ple, they opined that Scara­mucci’s dirty mouth was an in­di­ca­tion that he “tells it like it is,” that he was “un­afraid.” When he was ousted, some lamented that the next com­mu­ni­ca­tions capo would be more smooth, less “real.”

And if you were to trust the sci­ence head­lines from ear­lier this year, you might think that fans of the Mooch were on to some­thing: An ar­ti­cle pub­lished in Jan­uary ar­gued that peo­ple who swear tend to be hon­est.

When you dig into the de­tails, how­ever, it be­comes clear that swear­ing does not re­li­ably sig­nal hon­esty. Even the best ev­i­dence is not par­tic­u­larly con­vinc­ing.

Peo­ple in that Jan­uary study were asked to es­ti­mate how of­ten they swear and also how of­ten they do a va­ri­ety of things gen­er­ally agreed to be de­sir­able, such as keep­ing their prom­ises. Those who re­ported swear­ing more also re­ported more un­de­sir­able traits.

In an ac­ro­batic piece of rea­son­ing, the re­searchers in­ter­preted this as show­ing that swear­ers are more likely to come clean about their bad habits. But you could equally well con­clude that peo­ple who swear sim­ply have lots of un­de­sir­able per­son­al­ity traits. An­other study mea­sured ly­ing di­rectly. Sci­en­tists told vol­un­teers to pick heads or tails on a coin, and ex­plained that if the coin came up on that side twice, they would re­ceive an ad­di­tional $7. The vol­un­teers were then in­structed to flip the coin twice in com­plete pri­vacy. When they came out of seclu­sion, they re­ported their coin­flip re­sults, col­lected their win­nings — if any — and an­swered ques­tions in­clud­ing one about how of­ten they swore.

The re­searchers found that peo­ple who re­ported never swear­ing claimed a prize about a quar­ter of the time, which is what you’d ex­pect if they were be­ing

hon­est about their choice for the two coin flips. But those who re­ported some­times swear­ing claimed a prize far more of­ten, more than 40 per­cent of the time. Such a high rate sug­gests they must have been ly­ing to earn the ex­tra cash.

One can’t con­clude from this ex­per­i­ment that swear­ing is al­ways a sign of a dishonest char­ac­ter, but at the very least, the re­la­tion­ship be­tween swear­ing and hon­esty ap­pears murky. Scara­mucci’s swear­ing doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily mean that he’s more hon­est.

Nev­er­the­less, peo­ple in the pop­u­la­tion at large — just like those Trump-sup­port­ing red­di­tors — tend to per­ceive pro­fan­ity as re­veal­ing hon­esty.

In a 2005 study, re­searchers gave fe­male Dutch un­der­grads writ­ten tes­ti­mony from a bur­glary sus­pect deny­ing his in­volve­ment in the crime. Half read a ver­sion that in­cluded pro­fan­ity; the other half read a ver­sion with the pro­fan­ity re­moved. And then they rated how cred­i­ble they found the sus­pect’s de­nial. Those who read the swear­ing tes­ti­mony found it sig­nif­i­cantly more cred­i­ble.

Pro­fan­ity causes other pos­i­tive ef­fects. Re­searchers at North­ern Illi­nois Uni­ver­sity pre­sented 88 in­tro­duc­tory psy­chol­ogy stu­dents with a video in which a man ar­gues that tu­ition should be low­ered at an­other uni­ver­sity. But there were two dif­fer­ent ver­sions of the video, one in which he used pro­fan­ity, an­other in which he did not. The par­tic­i­pants who saw him swear not only agreed more with his po­si­tion — they were more per­suaded by the ar­gu­ment — but they also rated him as more pas­sion­ate and en­thu­si­as­tic.

So here’s the rub. Pro­fan­ity may leave a good im­pres­sion in cer­tain ways, but our impressions are not re­al­ity. The potty-mouthed among us, like Scara­mucci, may or may not be speak­ing hon­estly and may or may not be pas­sion­ate, re­gard­less how much their word choices make them seem that way.

If the next White House com­mu­ni­ca­tions di­rec­tor has a sim­i­larly col­or­ful vo­cab­u­lary, let’s rely on other more re­li­able in­di­ca­tors to de­ter­mine how truth­ful he or she is.

Ben­jamin Ber­gen is a pro­fes­sor of cog­ni­tive sci­ence and di­rec­tor of the Lan­guage and Cog­ni­tion Lab­o­ra­tory at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at San Diego. His most re­cent book is “What the F: What Swear­ing Re­veals About Our Lan­guage, Our Brains, and Our­selves.”

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