The Second-Hand Effects of Bitching

by Murray J. Munro
Department of Linguistics
Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, British Columbia

Winer[1] defines bitching as "incessant complaining about things." Bitching may be overt (the general sort of griping that is easily recognized as bitching by all) or covert (as when someone announces ominously to others that he or she "has a few concerns to air" under the pretext of being polite). It may also be classified as anticipatory ("You’re going to make me crazy!"), post hoc ("Why the hell did you do it that way?") or, in the case of individuals who simply can’t stop themselves from bellyaching, chronic.


Subjects. A gender-balanced pool of participants was recruited from among the full-time faculty at a major Canadian university (58 tenured and 22 untenured). As was expected for university faculty, none showed any signs of normal social skills or mental stability. Two subjects were dropped from the study when it was discovered that they had interests outside their work.

Procedure. The test subjects were exposed to controlled amounts of bitching from two hired confederates within each relevant university department. One confederate from each department bitched at the chairperson during faculty meetings at a self-monitored rate of 1.5 bitches per minute over a period of 6 minutes. The other confederate sent out three bitchy e-mail messages per week to each member of the test group. One message consisted of a screed against the university administration, accusing it of suppressing academic freedom and calling for the resignation of a randomly selected senior administrator; another message was a complaint about university parking policies; and the third was a dire warning about fiscal irresponsibility, impending budget cuts, and the likelihood of layoffs of untenured staff. The impact of exposure was assessed by taking blood pressure and cortisol measurements from each subject at the beginning of each day, and a stool sample at the end.

Stop complaining.
(Image credit: Flickr user Alan Turkus)


Analysis of the data from the daily bitchiness inventories revealed a significant positive correlation (r = .72, p < .01) between overall bitchiness and blood pressure levels. What was most striking about the results of the study, however, was the finding that second-hand bitching was even more harmful to the test subjects than their own self-generated whining. Hearing the confederate bitch during faculty meetings and reading bitchy e-mail resulted in significantly higher blood pressure readings, abnormally elevated cortisol levels, and increased anal retentiveness.

seems to me a sign that appears in my life frequently
(Image credit: Flickr user rachaelvoorhees)


Bitchiness levels in the university context are known to exceed those in most other workplace settings (except the civil service) by a factor of almost 3.5279.[2] For this reason the finding of adverse effects of exposure to second-hand bitching is particularly alarming. However, medical professionals have devoted far too much energy to the treatment of the effects of second-hand bitching. Instead of treating the effects, they should be focussing on the root of the problem. We therefore concur with Carper’s[3] view that bitching reduction and cessation programs within the workplace are highly advisable. Although hypnosis and cognitive therapy have been shown to be of limited value in stopping people from bitching, in extreme cases, taping shut the mouth of the offending person may be necessary.

complaint dept
(Image credit: Flickr user Life As Art)


1. "A Few Quibbles About Bitching," B. Winer, Journal of Implied Linguistics, vol. 3, 1973, pp. 45-9802.

2. "Etiology and Epidemiology of Bitching," B. Whimper and B. Snipe, Bitch Studies Quarterly, vol. 5, 1997, pp. 200-302.

3. "Control of Bitching Through Repeated Slapping," B. Carper, Journal of Applied Punishment, vol. 66, 1998, pp. 72-85.

(Title image credit: Flickr user Kyle Bondeson)


This article is republished with permission from the November-December 2001 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research. You can download or purchase back issues of the magazine, or subscribe to receive future issues. Or get a subscription for someone as a gift!

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