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All You Need is Loving Lyrics

Are you feeling charitable today? The answer may depend upon the contents of your iPod.
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Numerous studies have concluded that songs conveying antisocial messages — which are all-too-common in contemporary rap music — tend to promote aggressive thoughts and hostile feelings. New research finds the opposite is also true: Songs with lyrics promoting peace and love can increase empathy and encourage charitable behavior.

In an upcoming issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, psychologist Tobias Greitemeyer of the University of Sussex in Brighton, England, describes three studies featuring students at a university in Munich, Germany. In each case, participants were broken up into two groups, which listened to a different pairing of two songs. One group heard two numbers with pro-social lyrics, including Bob Sinclar’s “Love Generation;” the other listened to neutral songs, including that same artist’s “Rock This Party.”

(Sample lyrics from “Love Generation”: “Peace and Love to everyone that you meet/Don’t you worry, it could be so sweet.” Sample lyrics from “Rock This Party”: “Rock this party/Dance everybody/Make it hot in this party/Don’t stop, move your body.”)

Participants in the first test were then asked to fill out word fragments. For example, “Hi__” could be completed as the German word “hilfe” (“help”), or “hier” (“here”). The students exposed to the pro-social lyrics were far more likely to turn the fragments into pro-social words.

Participants in the second test were read two essays in which the authors spoke of the difficulties they was going through and described their subsequent feelings of depression. Those who had heard the pro-social songs indicated they felt far more compassionate and sympathetic toward the essays’ creators.

OK — but would these empathetic feelings make a difference in the listeners’ actual behavior? The final test examined that key question.

The 90 students who participated were paid 2 Euros, or approximately $3.20, for their services. After listening to either the pro-social or neutral songs, they were encouraged to donate their earnings to a nonprofit organization. After making the request, the test leader pointed to a box where they could leave their money, and then left the room.

Of the 45 participants who had listened to the pro-social songs, 24 donated their earnings. Of the 45 who had heard the neutral songs, only 14 donated. In other words, 53 percent of the first group performed the charitable act, compared to 31 percent of the second group.

No significant gender differences were reported in any of the tests.

Greitemeyer concedes that the test measures short-term effects of the music, which could of course be dissipated by other stimuli. On the other hand, he notes that if changes in emotion and behavior can be caused by listening to only two songs, “the positive effects on pro-social behavior might be even more pronounced” by a regular diet of such music.

So it appears Paul McCartney was justified in his pride that The Beatles consistently sang about peace and love during the turbulent 1960s. If Greitemeyer’s conclusions are correct, those songs may have helped ease some of the anger in the culture during that difficult era.

On the other hand, the theme song from the children’s television show Barney and Friends (“I love you/you love me”) has reportedly been used by American interrogators to break the will of Iraqi prisoners. Perhaps aggressively sweet music can have unintended consequences.