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How to Inspire Caring and Generosity: Music

The answer isn’t blowing in the wind. It’s playing on the soundtrack.

By Tom Jacobs


Joan Baez and Bob Dylan perform during a civil rights rally on August 28, 1963, in Washington D.C. (Photo: Rowland Scherman/National Archive/Newsmakers)

It’s easy to feel cynical about pop stars who record songs imploring people to care about others. Sure, such work assuages a bit of the guilt they feel about their lavish lifestyles. But a song doesn’t really change people’s behavior, does it?

Surprise: In some cases, it can.

That’s the conclusion of a newstudy, which found playing songs with pro-social lyrics in a German café increased the chances that patrons would spend a bit more for free-trade coffee.

“Songs that deal with social topics seem to have an impact on our cognition and behavior,” the University of Wuerzburg’s Nicolas Ruth writes in the journal Psychology of Music. “Musicians espousing such messages would be pleased to know that their music has a real — if small — effect on people’s behavior.”

Several laboratory studies, including one we wrote about back in 2008, have found that exposure to lyrics promoting peace and love increases listeners’ empathy. Ruth decided to test whether this would hold true in a real-world setting, and produce actual changes in people’s behavior.

Environmental cues do influence our behavior — sometimes in positive ways.

The study took place at a café in the city of Wuerzburg, in the south of Germany, over eight days in June 2015. Between 10 a.m. and noon on each of those days, the background music consisted of one of two specially prepared playlists: one exclusively featuring songs with pro-social lyrics, or another featuring those same artists singing songs with neutral lyrics.

For example, the pro-social playlist included Bob Dylan singing Blowin’ in the Wind, and Michael Jackson singing Heal the World. The alternate playlist had those same artists singing Like a Rolling Stone and Dirty Diana.

“As an indicator of global pro-social behavior, people had the option of buying organic fair-trade coffee for all of the hot drinks containing coffee,” Ruth explains. Doing so was a relatively inexpensive way of showing “environmental and social consciousness,” since the fair-trade coffee cost only 0.3 Euros extra, or about 34 cents.

“Information about fair-trade coffee, including its benefits, was presented on a blackboard in the center of the café,” Ruth writes. After their arrival, the server waited at least six minutes — the duration of one to two songs — to take their order.

The results, much like the coffee, were eye-opening. “People who were exposed to the pro-social music ordered more than twice as much fair-trade coffee than those in the neutral condition,” Ruth reports.

Specifically, 38 percent ordered the free-trade coffee when songs such as John Lennon’s Imagine were heard in the background, compared to 18.4 percent of those who were exposed to non-political music.

“It is unclear whether the guests were subconsciously influenced, or were consciously aware of the content of the music,” Ruth notes. Either way, however, the songs seem to have inspired many of them to spend a little more for the greater good.

It’s a reminder that environmental cues do influence our behavior — sometimes in positive ways. That’s something worth pondering over your next cup of coffee.