Many Trump supporters were over the moon at Anthony Scaramucci’s colorful phone call to the New Yorker, 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 on Monday, 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 coin-flip 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% 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 UC, San Diego. His most recent book is “What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves.”