Effects of context and individual differences on the processing of taboo words

Kiel Christianson, Peiyun Zhou, Cassie Palmer, Adina Raizen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Previous studies suggest that taboo words are special in regards to language processing. Findings from the studies have led to the formation of two theories, global resource theory and binding theory, of taboo word processing. The current study investigates how readers process taboo words embedded in sentences during silent reading. In two experiments, measures collected include eye movement data, accuracy and reaction time measures for recalling probe words within the sentences, and individual differences in likelihood of being offended by taboo words. Although certain aspects of the results support both theories, as the likelihood of a person being offended by a taboo word influenced some measures, neither theory sufficiently predicts or describes the effects observed. The results are interpreted as evidence that processing effects ascribed to taboo words are largely, but not completely, attributable to the context in which they are used and the individual attitudes of the people who hear/read them. The results also demonstrate the importance of investigating taboo words in naturalistic language processing paradigms. A revised theory of taboo word processing is proposed that incorporates both global resource theory and binding theory along with the sociolinguistic factors and individual differences that largely drive the effects observed here.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)73-86
Number of pages14
JournalActa Psychologica
StatePublished - Jul 2017


  • Eye-tracking
  • Psycholinguistics
  • Reading
  • Taboo words

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)


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