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The Dark Side of Music

Two new studies point to various ways music can influence our behavior.
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(Photo: ktsdesign/Shutterstock)

(Photo: ktsdesign/Shutterstock)

When we speak of the power of music, we refer usually to the positive qualities: its ability to stimulate, motivate, or soothe our souls. But as advertisers know all too well, music can also be an effective tool for manipulating people into buying certain products, or even voting for certain political candidates.

Think you're immune? Guess again: These effects generally work outside of our conscious awareness. Two recently published studies provide examples of music's ability to influence us in potentially problematic ways.

We'll start in Finland, where Marja-Liisa Haiko and Markku Kaustia of Helsinki's Aalto University conducted a study featuring 23 adolescents ages 12 to 17. Teens were chosen for two reasons: They were good at "explicitly identifying their specific musical taste," and it was "easier to create effective monetary incentives," due to their low incomes.

Prior to the main experiment, each participant identified four of their favorite songs, and four songs they particularly dislike. Tastes varied considerably, with 50 Cent, Eminem, and Rihanna making some of the kids' "favorite" lists and others' "least-favorite" lists.

We apparently find the idea of obtaining more money more pleasurable if we're listening to a tune we like, which makes us more likely to take a risk to satiate that desire.

One week later, each kid returned to the lab to play a game in which they were instructed "to accept or reject gambles that offered a 50-50 chance to win or lose money." For example, accepting a gamble marked "plus 1.50, minus 1.20" meant they had a 50 percent chance of winning 1.5 Euros, and a 50 percent chance of losing 1.2 Euros. Participants had a total of five seconds to choose whether to take each bet.

The kids' preferred music was played in the background for 64 such gambles. Music they disliked was played during another 64, while 128 were conducted in silence.

The researchers report in the online journal PLoS One that, compared to silence, the sound of their favorite songs increased risk-taking, while disliked music decreased it. Specifically, they write, "the frequency for accepting a gamble is 54.1 percent for favorite music, vs. 47.4 percent for disliked music. When no music was playing, the acceptance rate is 51.4 percent."

The researchers note that neither standard economic theory nor "prominent psychological theories on mood and risk-taking" explain their results. Their tentative explanation is that preferred music increases money's "marginal utility"—an economic term usually defined as "the additional satisfaction a consumer gains from consuming one more unit of a good or service."

In other words, we apparently find the idea of obtaining money more pleasurable if we're listening to a tune we like, which makes us more likely to take a risk to satiate that desire.

If that unconscious effect is a little spooky, consider a study by Israeli researcher Naomi Ziv recently published in the journal Psychology of Music. Ziv describes an experiment featuring 120 college students, each of whom was given 90 seconds to underline all the vowels in a "slightly unclear photocopied page" of text. One-quarter did so in silence, while the others heard one of four happy, upbeat musical numbers, including James Brown's I Feel Good.

Afterwards, with the music still playing in the background, the research assistant administering the experiment asked for a favor:

There is another student who came especially to the college today to participate in the study, and she has to do it because she needs the credit to complete her course requirements. The thing is, I don't feel like seeing her. Would you mind calling her for me and telling her that I've left and she can't participate?

Ziv notes that she used that specific request because it would require the participant "to harm another person who is in the same status and situation."

She found 65.6 percent of those hearing the happy music agreed to this ethically dubious proposition, while only 40 percent of those who worked in silence did so.

In a second, similar experiment, the research assistant asked each participant to call a student who had been seriously ill and tell her that, contrary to earlier promises, she won't be getting her course materials. Her only explanation: "I don't feel like giving them to her."

More than 80 percent of those who were listening to music agreed to do so, in spite of the fact their peer would be seriously harmed. In contrast, only 33 percent of those working in silence said yes.

Like the Finnish researchers, Ziv isn't entirely sure what's behind this effect. But her findings suggest music is powerful enough to throw our moral compasses off-balance. That's worth pondering.

Meanwhile, if you walk into a casino and your favorite song is playing, your best bet may be to head home.

Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.