UNCG Psychology Student Studies Profanity in Humor

Posted on July 18, 2024

Close up on hands dropping coins into a jar with the label

During her first year at UNC Greensboro, Meriel Burnett recruited more than 800 of her fellow students to tell jokes.

She set up different premises – for example, reacting to someone’s bad cooking. The students had to craft a joke about the experience. She got more than 2,000 jokes. 

They ranged from clean…

“It was so bad they gave it a reality show.” 

…To crass…

“It made Lady Gaga’s meat suit look [expletive] scrumptious.” 

The point of Burnett’s research, supported by Dr. Paul Silvia, professor of social psychology, was to make sense of who uses profanity in creative ways. 

“You can learn a lot about a person by the sorts of thing they find funny,” says Burnett. 

Her study of swearing in humor caught the attention of scientists in the American Psychological Association (APA)’s Division 10, its charter division dedicated to cognition, creativity, motivation, personality, and the relationship between pathology and the arts. Her presentation earned first place in the student showcase of the division’s 2024 conference. 

Profanity’s Place in Creative Thinking 

Photo of UNCG psychology Meriel Burnett.
Meriel Burnett

Having already earned a bachelor’s in psychology, Burnett came from Canberra, Australia to UNCG to get her master’s. She chose to focus on the psychology of creativity. “Psychology of intelligence is generally tested by the things you know. Psychology of creativity is broader than that,” she explains.

Creativity comes into play when we tell a joke, formulate a theory, or when we embellish our retelling of an event. It’s critical for problem-solving and abstract thinking. 

Silvia was an appropriate mentor for Burnett. He has spent years working on ways to measure creativity and artistic expression, publishing five books through the American Psychological Association about speaking, writing, and day-to-day life assessment. Other UNCG students have worked with him to research perseverance and daydreaming

Burnett centered her work on the psychology of language and how people’s choice of words may relate to individual differences like personality. “We use something called a joke stems task,” she says. “We gave people three setups for a joke, and they created the ending.” 

Burnett says text data is exciting to work with because of the variety of parameters she can apply to it. “There’s obviously how funny a joke is. But there are so many other linguistic qualities: What kind of joke do they make? Is it abstract? Is it concrete? Is it really long? Really short? Did they use sarcasm or a double entendre?” 

What Language Tells Us About People 

Researching profanity may sound tongue in cheek, but it has practical applications for understanding social interactions. Swearing can be used in jest – Burnett told her participants to imagine telling their joke to their friends – but it can also hurt or degrade someone. It’s used to measure the appropriateness of a response – cursing about bad food will be taken differently from cursing during a life-or-death scenario. 

Furthermore, some people may laugh at a crude joke but never make one themselves. Out of the responses from UNCG participants, only seven percent used swearing. 

The participants also had to rate how funny they thought their own joke was and fill out personality surveys. Burnett computed personality scores based on the five categories of the NEO Five-Factor Personality Inventory: neuroticism, extraversion, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. She and Silvia then entered all that data into a machine learning model along with the subjects’ ages and gender. 

Burnett’s findings suggested that the category of “agreeableness” may predict a person’s use of profanity in a joke. “Someone with high agreeableness generally wants smooth social relationships, while low agreeableness is more of a troublemaker,” she explains.

The disparity was most notable in men. She says, “Men high in agreeableness never used profanity. Women might use a little bit of it, but men with low agreeableness who thought they were funny ended up being the big swearers.” 

Cultural Differences

As an Australian studying in the United States, Burnett understood countries and cultures have different norms for swearing – including its overall acceptability and the degree of offensiveness tied to each word. To make sure she did not miss any profane words, she utilized an online database typically used by websites to filter out swearing in comments. 

There is an enormous collection of words considered to be profane in some way, and they range from quite mild to extremely severe,” says Burnett. “We were able to sidestep the issue of cultural differences by taking this massive profanity dictionary and then manually correcting if it flagged a word in error.”

Cartoon of one stick person surrounded by symbols of swearing yelling at another stick person who shrugs.

Award-Winning Findings 

As Burnett’s award demonstrates, professionals take profanity seriously. 

Silvia felt that Burnett’s work was relevant to the APA’s Division 10, one of 19 charter divisions that includes research about creativity and personality. He encouraged Burnett to share her research at the APA Division 10: Society for Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts Conference, held in March just outside Dallas, Texas.

The student showcase was open to any student in higher education. Each presenter had to give a three-minute talk with one PowerPoint slide. “It was a very friendly conference. Everyone was so nice,” says Burnett. “But the other speeches were so excellent that I didn’t think I had much of a chance of winning.” 

UNCG psychology student Meriel Burnett stands at a podium next to a display of her research.
Burnett’s student showcase presentation

She was pleasantly surprised to take first place, especially after swearing like a sailor in front of the judges. 

“I was firing off swear words like nobody’s business,” she laughs. “I censored them on my slide so it would not be too shocking to look at them. I do try to be polite and adjust to the culture, but I was saying an F-word here and there. It’s all for science.” 

Story by Janet Imrick, University Communications 
Photography courtesy of Meriel Burnett, College of Arts and Sciences, and Adobe Stock

UNCG Professor Michaeline Jensen writes on a whiteboard in front of students.

Take a closer look at human behavior.


Spartans Give Ready for New Year of Crowdfunding

Posted on July 16, 2024

UNCG clocktower next to the logo for Spartans Give.

Thanks to this initiative launched during the last academic year, UNCG groups have a new way to engage with one another and support projects that will help students excel. 

Spartans Give, which operates out of University Advancement, creates an infrastructure for peer-to-peer fundraising. UNCG groups can turn to this program to help raise money for equipment, travel expenses, scholarships, and other tangible resources that directly support scholarly work, campus community-building, and philanthropy and service. 

Spartans Give will accept applications for new crowdfunding proposals from August 12-30 and is holding informational sessions to help UNCG groups decide if this would be a viable tool for their meeting their goals.

Dates of meetings
July 23 at 1 p.m.
August 22 at 1 p.m.
August 27 at 1 p.m.

Sign up for one of the hour-long sessions here. All prospective applicants are required to attend an interest meeting before they apply.

This application period is for Fall 2024, Spring 2025, and Summer 2025. Applicants whose proposals are accepted will be notified in early September. 

Success of Crowdfunding 

A UNCG student works with children around a table.
The Center for New North Carolinians was one of UNCG’s centers that successfully crowdfunded through Spartans Give.

Since the soft launch of Spartans Give in 2022, 274 donors have contributed. Groups receive the funds raised even if the crowdfunding project does not reach its target goal. 

These are the previous campaigns hosted by Spartans Give and their funding success:

• Spartan DRIVE Carbon Offset – 82% 
• UNCG Genetic Counseling – 155% 
• CNNC: Opening New Doors – 223% 
• School of Theatre Name a Seat – 117% 
• Grads Gather @ the G – 96% 

Changes for 2024 

Spartans Give is making some changes for the 2025 fiscal year. They will no longer sort campaigns into two tiers. All will be considered crowdfunding. Projects may have a goal between $500-$10,000, but if it is a group’s first Spartans Give campaign, the public goal may not exceed $5,000. If a group meets their goal before the campaign ends, they can continue fundraising beyond their initial goal.

Groups must raise at least 30% of their goal before the campaign’s public launch.

To learn more about Spartans Give, go to spartansgive.uncg.edu or email Arjanai Miller at admille7@uncg.edu.


Follow Me Season 3 Spotlights Students Who Serve

Posted on July 15, 2024

UNCG students fistbump on the patio at Southend Brewery.

University Communications has released the third season of its “Follow Me” video series, featuring four students who give viewers a peek into their daily lives at UNC Greensboro. 

This most recent season stars students with nursing, political science, music education, and biology majors. All four are living full lives on campus with personal passions, academic drive, and a penchant for service to others. Find out how they are using their time on the UNCG campus to prepare for careers that will uplift their future communities. 

Be inspired by how our Season 3 Follow Me students are already serving those around them and subscribe to UNCG’s YouTube channel to be the first to see new content from across the campus. 

Lauren McWhinnie:
from poolside lifeguard to neuroscience nurse 

Major:  Nursing  

Inspiration: Witnessing an uncle’s struggles with a brain injury engages a caretaker’s calling. 

Stress Relievers: swimming laps and sweet treats 

Videography by Sean Norona, University Communications.

Mannie Aquino:
from fraternity philanthropy to public policy

Major: Political Science & Philosophy 

Inspiration: Spartan communities and cultural pride unlock a passion for public service. 

Stress Relievers: donation buckets and downed bowling pins  

Videography by Sean Norona, University Communications.

Joshua Thomas:
from church choir leader to school band director 

Major: Music Education 

Inspiration: Band teacher lights a musical fire. 

Stress Relievers: fresh air and crocheted creations 

Videography by David Lee Row, University Communications.

Daniel Araya:
from farmers market volunteer to Dr. Araya 

Major: Biology 

Inspiration: Spartan advising puts med school within reach. 

Stress Relievers: pumping iron and growing global solutions 

Videography by Grant Gilliard, University Communications.

Story by Becky Deakins, University Communications.
Photography by Sean Norona, University Communications.

Two women chat as they sit on a brick wall in front of the EUC on the UNCG campus.

Be the first to see new content from all around campus.


Funding Friday: Relationship Problem Solving and Sleep’s Impact on Weight

Posted on July 12, 2024

UNCG Professor Wiley looks at the Arabic language written on a whiteboard.

Thanks to new funding awards, UNCG faculty continue to advance research in a wide range of areas. These projects will include an expansion of slave deeds and study materials for flow batteries.


Staff Senate Announces 2024-25 Co-Chairs

Posted on July 12, 2024

Headshots of UNCG Staff Senate Co-chairs Kimberly Mozingo and Carla Wilson.

Staff Senate is thrilled to introduce the co-chairs for the 2024-25 academic year, Kimberly Mozingo and Carla Wilson.


Spartan Summer Excursions: Escape in Nature

Posted on July 11, 2024

Wooden bridge crosses stream near a Crabapple Falls.

North Carolina’s outdoor spaces are growing in size and popularity each year. The Parks and Recreation Department says more than 20 million visitors came to the state parks in 2023, exploring nearly 3,000 acres of North Carolina’s most beautiful landscapes.  

Spartans looking for a summer outdoor excursion will find there are no limits. They can tailor their experience for a vigorous day of exercise, a space to relax, or an outdoor show in North Carolina’s mountains, beaches, and Piedmont communities, many of which are a short distance from UNC Greensboro. 

Stamp Your Way Through the Parks

View of Grandfather Mountain.
Grandfather Mountain

North Carolina created a passport program to track your progress across parks and trails. These booklets are kept in the park visitor centers, so hikers can start anywhere in the state. Once you pick up a booklet, you can take it to other visitor centers and get a stamp, tracking your progress through 34 recreational areas. 

There are no prizes for completing a passport outside of bragging rights and your photos and memories of majestic waterfalls, rock formations, and lookout points. You don’t need to be an experienced hiker to navigate these paths. They are categorized by length and difficulty. 

Outdoor Tunes 

Summer music is a staple of Piedmont cities; all you need to enjoy it is a lawn chair or blanket. Greensboro has made a tradition out of MUSEP, which stands for “Music for a Sunday Evening in the Park” and hosts bands through August. 

Winston-Salem is in the midst of its 26th Summer Music Series featuring downtown jazz concerts. Asheboro’s Summer Concert Series brings throwback bands and popular regional artists to its park once a month on Friday and Saturday. In Burlington, grab a drink every Fourth Friday and take in a foot-tapping show at its Historic Depot. Mt. Airy’s amphitheater lineup runs through October for $17 a ticket. Or enjoy Kernersville’s botanical garden at sunset for July Music at Twilight

If you don’t mind traveling a little further, you can mix music with fireworks. Kure Beach, just south of Wilmington, is the home of Boardwalk Blast, which features weekly outdoor concerts with fireworks by the sea. 

Park for a Picture

Cars parked around an outdoor movie screen.
Eden Drive-In

How about a movie under the stars? Drive-in movies saw an uptick when traditional movie theaters were closed during the pandemic. A few remain in operation and show old film favorites along with new releases.

The Eden Drive-In is a 45-minute trip from the UNCG campus. It updates its showings on its Facebook page. If you don’t mind the longer drive, you can head south to the Badin Drive-in Theater in Abermarle. Movies at both locations are $8 per adult. 

Fruitful Festivals 

What’s better in the summer than a refreshing slice of sweet watermelon? Food-themed festivals let you explore some of North Carolina’s small communities, embrace the state’s agricultural heritage, and sample popular cuisines. 

Crowds walk past a booth advertising fried apple pie.
NC Apple Festival

There are two different watermelon festivals this summer. Columbus County holds its annual Watermelon Festival on July 27. This event began in the 1970s with a friendly competition between two retiring farmers comparing the size of their watermelons. That grew into something even bigger – an annual event with a parade, contests for different ages, a pageant to crown the Watermelon Festival Queen, and of course, lots of watermelons. If that date does not work for you, you can go to Murfreesboro for the four-day Watermelon Festival from July 31-August 3.

Also on July 26-27 is the Peach and Heritage Festival in Wilkesboro. Try some peach concoctions, buy locally-made crafts, and enjoy live music. Or check out the Ocracoke Fig Festival on the coast from August 2-3 for performances, demonstrations, and free samples from its bake-off contestants. Just before summer draws to a close, Hendersonville will hold the NC Apple Festival from August 30-September 2, with a street fair and carnival. While you’re there, make sure to check out jewelry for sale at the Gem and Mineral Spectacular that coincides with the festival. 

It’s not all fruits and veggies. Greensboro holds its Food Truck Festival on August 25. Come downtown to check out about 50 different food trucks, craft beer, and arts and crafts for sale. 

Cool Off 

Once the humidity rises, North Carolina summers start to feel less like paradise and more like a sauna. But thanks to the state’s many waterways and parks, it’s easy to beat the heat. 

People swimming in Piney Lake.
Piney Lake

Greensboro has Wet ‘n Wild Emerald Pointe, a popular water park packed with slides, lazy rivers, wave pools, and splash zones. There is so much to do, you can choose whatever thrill level makes you comfortable.

UNCG also keeps Piney Lake, a 40-acre park with a water trampoline, paddleboards, and kayaks, open on weekends in the summer. Make it an all-day event with your family and friends by using the charcoal grills to prep an outdoor picnic after a dip in the lake. 

And though many of the trails have a “Look, but stay back” policy due to slick rocks around waterfalls, the state’s rivers make up for that. Schedule a lazy afternoon on some of North Carolina’s most popular waterways – the Dan River, Deep River, French Broad, and New River all let you rent an inner tube. Or you can ramp up the adventure with whitewater rafting or kayaking. 

Visit a Castle 

The Biltmore Mansion is one the most popular draws in the state, nestled in Asheville. Not only can you experience its fantastic interior design, but you can also tour the six gardens, conservatory, and trails winding through its 8,000 acres. Stop by the winery or go shopping in the Antler Hill and Biltmore Villages.

Walkway through Latham Gardens at Tryon Palace.
Tryon Palace

Biltmore is by far the most famous, but not the only castle in North Carolina. Near the coast in New Bern, dive into the beleaguered history of the Tryon Palace, the home of a British governor that became a centerpiece in the prelude to the War for Independence. Now it’s a hub for tours, reenactments, and special events. Its restoration in the 1950s developed new, expansive gardens for visitors. 

Smithmore Castle sits between Pisgah and Cherokee National Forests, making it a prime spot for picking and choosing your outdoor adventure. It offers horseback riding, cave tours, archery, and river activities. Relax on the balcony with friends and a cup of tea. And if you book a room at Smithmore, you can end the day listening to the crackle of the fire pit. 

Story by Janet Imrick, University Communications 
Photography courtesy of Adobe, Eden Drive-In, Visit Hendersonville, and Tryon Palace
Additional photography by Sean Norona, University Communications

Students walking downtown.

Check out Greensboro’s hot spots and hidden gems.


2024 Betty Hardin Awardee for Finance and Administration

Posted on July 16, 2024

Headshot of UNCG staffmember Grant Harris against backdrop of Walker Parking Deck.

Please join UNCG’s Finance & Administration in congratulating Grant Harris, transportation and event manager for Parking Operations and Campus Access Management, this year’s winner of the 2024 Betty Hardin Award for Excellence in Finance & Administration.

This award is presented each year to deserving regular, full-time employees of the Finance & Administration Division who have demonstrated one or more of the following criteria:

  • Superior Leadership to the Division of Finance & Administration
  • A Spirit of Excellence
  • A Demonstrated Commitment to the Principles of Work
  • Rendering of Service Above and Beyond the Call of Duty to the University Community

I know you will join us in recognizing Grant for his outstanding service and leadership to the University.


High Honors for Dance Grads, Lydia and Laniya

Posted on July 09, 2024

UNCG students Laniya Smith and Lydia Pate in their caps and gowns holding certificates.

Lydia Pate and Laniya Smith were among the recipients of the 2024 Provost Student Excellence Awards, the highest academic honor for undergraduate students at UNCG.


Spartan SPEARS Needed for Beginning of Fall 2024

Posted on July 16, 2024

Two UNCG volunteers wear green Spear t-shirts on campus.

Calling all UNCG faculty and staff with a desire to help new students! You have the opportunity to serve as an honorary Spartan SPEAR during the first week of classes.

As in past years, the Spartan SPEARS volunteer program will assist new students with navigating campus on the first two days of classes. Volunteers in lime green t-shirts with campus maps will be strategically positioned around campus to give new students directions and answer questions. We are excited to offer the Spartan SPEARS program this January for our incoming students to welcome them to campus!

Faculty and staff interested in volunteering for a 1-hour shift can sign up here!

  • Tuesday, August 20 sign-ups here
  • Wednesday, August 21 sign-ups here

Volunteers will be provided everything they need to be a rawkstar Spartan SPEAR, including basic training instructions, the famous lime green t-shirt, and a clipboard with a campus map.

For more information, contact Maggie Nichols, YFY Coordinator, at manichols@uncg.edu or YFY at yfy@uncg.edu.


Spartan Student-Athletes Named to SoCon Honor Roll

Posted on July 08, 2024

Student in UNCG shirt writes in a notebook while sitting in the stands of the soccer stadium.

196 UNCG student-athletes named to conference honor roll earn praise for hard work on their field of play and in the classroom.