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Treatment Of Excessive Swearing Through Operant Conditioning

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Swearing refers to the use of profane or obscene language (Swear, n.d.). Swearing is seen as obscene and inappropriate behaviour, and yet many people use swear words in their daily lives. Several studies support the use of swearing. Baruch, Prouska, Ollier-Malaterre & Bunk (2017) argued that swearing has positive benefits, such as stress-relief, communication-enrichment and socialization-enhancement. The notion that swearing has its uses is also supported by Stephens, Atkins & Kingston (2009), whose study found that participants who swore has increased pain tolerance, increased heart rate and decreased perceived pain compared with participants who do not swear. However, when done one too many, the behaviour becomes excessive. The benefits that were previously mentioned would not have the same effect when done excessively as they’re desensitized to the action. The habit of excess swearing does not have any benefit whatsoever and would negatively impact the users’ social image.

Trice & Parker (1983) conducted a study with two 16-year-old male students with a record of excessive use of obscene words, intending to reduce their frequency of swearing using operant conditioning in the forms of social reinforcement and response cost procedure. They were monitored during the classroom study hours. Every time a participant says one of the six selected offensive words, they would receive a mark. Social reinforcement in this study comes in the form of appraisal at the start of the new day, given if the participant manages to restrain swearing under the determined tally. Response cost refers to positive punishment, in which the student was given five minutes of detention for each mark they receive. It was found that both procedures were effective in reducing swearing in both students and had a brief period of maintenance of effect. However, the authors noted that these procedures were simple and found the need to improve the intensiveness of the intervention.

Musser, Bray, Kehle & Jenson (2001) examined the use of verbal aggression or such as swearing as part of the disruptive classroom behaviour of 3 students. The authors implemented an intervention with operant conditioning using mystery motivators, token economy and response cost procedure to decrease negative behaviours. Mystery motivators, in this case, are positive reinforcer, items that the students highly valued presented in a hidden manner to increase their anticipation for the reward. A token economy is a form of behaviour modification in which tokens are given out which could be exchanged for rewards. Tokens are represented in the study with stickers, and response cost or negative punishment comes in the form of taking stickers away. The stickers could be traded for the mystery motivator. Results of the study suggest that the intervention was able to reduce levels of disruptive behaviour. Limitations of this study are the follow-up phase was only conducted for two weeks, meaning that the long-term effect of the study is debateable.

Operant conditioning is also used in a study by Mammolite (2017) on an 18-year-old female student with the disruptive behaviour of swearing. Operant conditioning for this study comes in the form of token economy, in which if the student has less than the limit of curses in the classroom period, she will receive a token which could be exchanged for more time with her peers. The data collected shows that the use of a token economy method had improved the student’s behaviour in class. Limitations of the study occur when a teacher removes her from the classroom, hindering the progress of collecting data. The student’s broken foot during the study also affected her swear rate, increasing her curse rate in the week she first used her cast.

The aim of this project is to examine a participant with the habit of excessive swearing from data collected from a ten-day monitoring period, find context and motivators that drive the habit, and establishing a treatment to eliminate the unwanted habit of excessive swearing.


DAS is a 20-year-old male student who has conveyed an interest in reducing his frequency of swearing. The target behavior is excessive swearing, which refers to any incidence in which an offensive verbal language from any language is used to express emotions. Any offensive word from any language is counted as an instance. An example is saying “Fuck” after stubbing a toe. A questionable instance is a burst of swears. It is counted as one instance, with an example being saying “Shit” four times in a row after touching a boiling hot pan recorded only as one instance. Another questionable instance is not finishing the swear word, in which case would not count as an instance. For example, only saying “Sh-“ instead of the complete word “Shit” would not count as an instance.

The monitoring method for this behavior is event recording, in which every instance of the behavior occurring is documented. This method is suitable for the target behavior because the behavior has a low frequency, which makes it easy to document with the method. DAS recorded instances of the behavior occurring, along with how he felt before and after doing said behavior, the place and the people with him. The duration of the monitoring started at 7 AM, 21st September 2019 until 7 AM 30th September 2019.

There is a limitation for this method, which is that it requires the subject to be attentive and record every instance of the behavior, which he found difficult due to his need to divide attention with his current actions.


The data gathered from the monitoring period shows that the frequency of swears has a total of 111, a mean of 11.1 per day, and a range of 17 with the highest being 20 swears on day eight and the lowest being day ten with only three swears.

The subject often feels restless because of constantly thinking about his academic scores, future plans, and money management. Another cause of his restlessness is because of his habit of playing high-paced online games, which often puts him in a stressful situation.

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Swearing refers to any incidence in which an offensive verbal language from any language is used to express emotions. Any offensive word from any language is counted as an instance. An example is saying “Fuck” after stubbing a toe. A burst of swears is counted as one instance, with an example being saying “Shit” four times in a row after touching a boiling hot pan.


  • Negative remark from others due to how impolite the behaviour is
  • Sense of relief/ catharsis
  • Minor reduction in stress level


  • Adds a negative effect on others’ perception of the subject
  • Desensitisation of swearing would lead to slips in inappropriate contexts (i.e. with his parents), which has negative effects (i.e. receiving punishment from parents)

DAS is a 20-year-old male who has a habit of excessive swearing. Historically, DAS reported that his habit of swearing started because he was influenced by listening to his classmates swearing at school and because of watching movies or TV shows which has the actors swearing. Contextually, DAS’s habit of swearing takes place when he’s with his roommates, his classmates from campus, and when he’s playing video games with his online friends. DAS reported that getting surprised by something, getting hurt, losing online games and dropping something results in him swearing. DAS feels his restlessness affects him to swear. DAS reported a sense of relief and a reduction of stress after swearing, which reinforces his behaviour of swearing. DAS reported that he often receives negative remarks from others around him when he swears, however, he believed that it does not bother him. DAS believed that his habit would affect him badly in the long run, as it may result in others thinking badly of him and he could accidentally swear in inappropriate contexts.


To swear refers to use profane or obscene language. This project aims to reduce subject DAS’s habit of excess swearing. The data gathered from monitoring DAS shows that two important contexts motivate the subject to swear. The first context that motivates DAS’s swearing is when he is with his friends on campus, hanging out in the mall or the living room. Another context that motivates DAS to swear the most is when he is playing video games with his online games, consistent with the study of Stephens & Zile (2017) which stated that the use of swear word increases the more emotional arousal is felt, in this case, DAS experiences emotional arousal from the video game he’s playing.

Several factors reinforce the subject’s swearing habit. The first factor is because swearing is related with increased pain tolerance (Stephens, Atkins & Kingston, 2009), therefore every time DAS swears after injuring himself, he feels more tolerant to the pain, which in turn reinforces the behaviour. Another factor is that swearing is associated with helping stress relief (Baruch, Prouska, Ollier-Malaterre & Bunk, 2017), meaning that the subject’s swearing habit is reinforced because they feel less stress after swearing.

To help eliminate DAS’s excess swearing habit, operant conditioning can be applied. The use of operant conditioning to reduce the frequency of swearing is shown to be successful in the studies done by Trice & Parker (1983), Musser, Bray, Kehle & Jenson (2001), and Mammolite (2017), and thus the same method could be used to treat DAS’s excessive swearing. The operant conditioning process would be divided into 4 phases, with each phase shaping DAS’s behaviour step by step. The result would be that DAS would be able to restrain themselves from swearing. For operant conditioning to work, things that work as reinforcement and punishment for the subject would need to be identified. DAS stated that he enjoys consuming carbonated beverages, therefore it could be used as a positive reinforcement to increase the desired behaviour of not swearing. On the other hand, limiting DAS’s time playing video games could serve as a form of negative punishment and response cost, as it removes something that DAS enjoys doing. The negative punishment reduces the frequency of the unwanted behaviour, which in this case is swearing.

Phase one is the first implementation of reward and punishment, with a tally of a maximum of ten swears per day applied for DAS. If DAS can say less than ten swears for three days in a row, he receives a can of soda as a reinforcement. For each swearing done above the maximum score, DAS’s time playing games would be reduced by one hour. Once DAS can swear less than ten times for three days in a row, move on to step two.

In phase two, the maximum amount of swears is reduced to five. If DAS can say less than five swears for three days in a row, he receives a can of soda as a reinforcement. The same punishment still applies in this phase, with each swearing done above the maximum score, DAS’s time playing games would be reduced by one hour. When DAS can swear less than five times for three days in a row, move on to the next step.

The third phase has the maximum amount of swears reduced to three. If DAS can say less than three swears for three days in a row, he receives a can of soda as a reinforcement. The punishment is carried over from the previous phases, with each swearing done above the maximum score, DAS’s time playing games would be reduced by one hour. When DAS can swear less than three times for three days in a row, move on to the final step.

The fourth and final phase is to maintain the behaviour without the need of reinforcements and punishment and to make sure that the aim of the intervention is fulfilled, which is the elimination of DAS’s swearing behaviour. DAS would be required to not swear at all for ten days. If DAS can complete ten days without swearing, then the behaviour is successfully eliminated. However, if DAS swears during the ten days, then the behaviour persists, which in this case DAS would be reverted to the third phase.

There are limitations to this project. First, the success and the continuation of the intervention heavily relies on DAS to not quit half-way or cheat on his result, which is dependent on DAS’s self-motivation to complete the intervention. The other limitation has been previously mentioned, which is the subject has difficulty to be attentive to every instance occurring as his attention is divided with his current actions, resulting in some instances that may have happened not being recorded.


  1. Baruch, Y., Prouska, R., Ollier-Malaterre, A., & Bunk, J. (2017). Swearing at work: the mixed outcomes of profanity. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 32(2), 149–162.
  2. Mammolite, C., Jasmine, Joanne, & Vivinetto, James. (2012). Decreasing Student Negative Behavior With A Token Economy System. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing. Retrieved from
  3. Musser, E., Bray, M., Kehle, T., & Jenson, W. (2001). Reducing disruptive behaviors in students with serious emotional disturbance. School Psychology Review, 30(2), 294–304. Retrieved from /
  4. Stephens, R., Atkins, J., & Kingston, A. (2009). Swearing as a response to pain. NeuroReport, 20(12), 1056–1060.
  5. Stephens, R., & Zile, A. (2017). Does Emotional Arousal Influence Swearing Fluency? Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 46(4), 983–995.
  6. Swear (n.d.) In Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary. Retrieved from
  7. Trice, A. D., & Parker, F. C. (1983). Decreasing Adolescent Swearing in an Instructional Setting. Education and Treatment of Children, 6(1), 29–35.

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Treatment Of Excessive Swearing Through Operant Conditioning. (2021, September 23). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 24, 2023, from
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