Smart People Swear a Lot, Stay up Late and Have a Messy Desk: Bull#%@!

Articles with a similar title to what I give this one (minus the “bull#%@!”) have popped up in my social media feeds from time to time over recent years, and seeing it again a week ago – in the dead of Winter – motivated me to dig into the studies that supposedly back-up this premise and find ways to tear the argument apart.

The fact that I’ve been writing about the 5 Elements of Traditional Chinese Medicine is partly what fuels my motivation. The Winter time is the season of the Water Element, the principles of which encourage us to practice “right speech” and to live our lives in an ethical and moral manner, the exact opposite of what is promoted in the articles I site below. Should we disregard ancient wisdom (and common sense) in order to believe that bad habits make us more “intelligent?”

Potty Mouth

It’s not a sign of intelligence.

Articles in the Independent, the Guardian and the Business Insider all reference the same study in support of the claim that swearing is a sign of intelligence, and, “can be linked to an increase of your IQ.” It’s actually a two step process – or you could call it a leap – that these authors take when making these claims. The study attempts to refute the common assumption that people swear when they lack the vocabulary to choose a more suitable word. Researchers say the results of the study show that subjects with a larger lexicon of curse words also have a broader vocabulary, in general; and that we, as intelligent readers, should take this to mean that people who swear a lot must have a big vocabulary.

Here’s why I consider their conclusion to be quite a jump, or a total non-sequitur. First of all, people who swear a lot don’t necessarily have an abundant number of swear words in their brain; they might use the same curse word or small number of curse words over and over again. Second, simply because one has a large vocabulary of curse words doesn’t mean that he or she necessarily puts them to use.

One finding from the study (that none of the articles mention) is that, “Taboo fluency was positively correlated with the Big Five personality traits neuroticism and openness and negatively correlated with agreeableness and conscientiousness.” I got to learn something here! Apparently, if you are able to utilize a lot of curse words you are more likely to be neurotic and exhibit traits of openness; and less likely to be conscientious and agreeable. Being open is good, I guess, but I would pass on the neurotic part; and the not being conscientious or agreeable part. If you want to read more about the Big Five personality traits, I found an informative article at

Another note I think is relevant about the Big Five, as stated at, is that “Studies have shown that maturation may have an impact on the five traits. As people age, they tend to become less extroverted, less neurotic, and less open to experience. Agreeableness and conscientiousness, on the other hand, tend to increase as people grow older.” So, as we get older we exhibit behaviors that correlate less with the tendency to swear a lot; we become less neurotic, more agreeable and conscientious – sounds good to me. But does that also mean that we are getting more stupid as we age? If you ask the writers at the Guardian, the Independent, the Business Insider (or my children) they’d probably say yes.

The Night Owl Study

The articles also use a piece from Psychology Today to support their argument that staying up late is a sign of intelligence. The piece provides no link to the actual study (oops!), and it summarizes the findings of the study with 4 charts and a summary paragraph. There are so many holes in this one, but I’ll just provide you with a few points that highlight the fact that this study is no evidence that staying up late is a sign of intelligence, or that staying up late will make you more intelligent.

The study sited in the article takes children with varying levels of IQ and then compares the level of their IQ with their sleeping habits in early adulthood. The chart of the data shows that children with a higher IQ go to bed slightly later (when they become young adults) and wake up slightly later (when they become young adults) than the children with a lesser IQ do (once they become young adults). Ok, but do the subjects with a high IQ as children still have a high IQ as adults? Wouldn’t it make a whole lot more sense to measure both the IQ and the sleeping habits at the same time? Or, maybe there are not as many variables that would come into play as the subjects grow from children to adults as I might think.

Second, the sleeping habits are not all that drastically different between the children that had a high IQ and those that did not. If you look at the first graph in the sited article, the difference between the mean bedtime of 11:41pm (for adults with a low IQ as children) and the mean bedtime of 12:29am (for adults with a high IQ as children) is a whopping 48 minutes! Since when does going to bed 48 minutes later make the difference between being a night owl or a morning lark?

Third, the study doesn’t have anything to say about the portion of children studied that go to bed earlier than 11:41pm – what about them? You can’t tell me there are no young adults out there that don’t go to bed before 11:00pm, or even 10:00pm. They’re the ones more likely to be a morning lark and wake up around 5:00 or 6:00 in the morning. I may be somewhat of a bore, but I would consider anyone who stays up later than 11:30pm to be a night owl!

Messy Space

Messiness is not intelligence.

Finally, the science supposedly now shows that being a slob is a sign of intelligence. The big take away from the study sited in these articles is, according to the researchers, that subjects who filled out questionnaires in a messy office as opposed to a tidy office, afterwords came up with more creative alternative uses for ping pong balls. These ideas were deemed more creative by, “impartial judges,” of course.

So does this mean that a “messy desk and intelligence go hand in hand,” as the Business Insider claims; or that, “Intelligent people tend to be messy,” as the Independent puts it? I would say, no. Perhaps a messy environment may stimulate creative thinking in some situations – for some people – but this study really has nothing to say about whether intelligent people keep their environments messy or not. Shouldn’t we be looking for a study that actually researches “intelligent people,” if we wanted to figure out how these individuals are influenced by their environment?

Sticking with Convention

My conclusion would be to stick with convention in spite of the cutting edge research sited in the recent articles I’ve discussed. During the remaining weeks of Winter I still believe it’s wise council to get to bed early, wash your hands often and be mindful of your tongue; and it’s perhaps the most important time to stick with the age-old adages such as, “cleanliness is godliness;” early to bed and early to rise, make a man healthy, wealthy and wise;” and, “watch your d$@! mouth or I’ll wash it out with soap!”

In Eastern conventional wisdom, it’s a good idea to practice Qigong for the Water Element during the Winter season! Check out the Qigong resources I have available at my website,

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