We’re all familiar with the use of music as a tool of persuasion in advertising. There’s also research that’s looked at the social influence of lyrics – for example, there’s evidence that songs with antisocial lyrics can increase hostile and aggressive feelings, whereas positive lyrics such as in Michael Jackson’s Heal the World can reduce aggression. Positive music can also increase people’s willingness to do good deeds. Yet studies also show that positive music can have paradoxically negative outcomes, for example increasing people’s acceptance of messages endorsing harm to others. A new study published in the Psychology of Music takes this further by testing whether positive music increases people’s willingness to do bad things to others.
Naomi Ziv at The College of Management Academic Studies recruited 120 undergrad participants (24 men) to take part in what they thought was an investigation into the effects of background music on cognition. Consistent with the cover story, the students (tested one at a time) had to underline the vowels in a passage of text while music played in the background or, if they were in the control group, they completed the task in silence.
The students in the background music condition were exposed to one of three types of music. Some students heard James Brown’s I Got You (I Feel Good), chosen in pre-testing because people enjoyed it, found it positive, and were familiar with it:
Other students were played Elvis Crespo’s Suavemente, chosen because it was enjoyable, positive and familiar, but the participants wouldn’t be able to understand the Spanish lyrics:
Finally, another group of students were played an instrumental piece – Boston Horns’ Pink Polyester – chosen because it was enjoyable and positive but unfamiliar:
The key test came after the students had completed the underling task. With the music still playing in the background, the male researcher made the following request of the participants:
“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?”
A higher proportion of the students in the background music condition (65.6 per cent) than the no-music control condition (40 per cent) agreed to perform this task, which involved lying and would have left another student in hot water for not completing her course requirements. In fact if participants agreed to make the call, the researcher pretended to receive a text message to say the student wasn’t coming in to college after all. Focusing on the specific types of music, only James Brown and Elvis Crespo were associated with greater compliance, suggesting that music needs to be both liked and familiar to exert this persuasive effect.
A second study was similar but this time the research assistant was female, she recruited 63 volunteers (31 men) in the student cafeteria (whereas the first study involved students participating as a course requirement), and there were just two conditions: either Elvis Crespo’s Suavemente in the background or no music. After the underling task, the female researcher made the following request:
“Could I ask you to do me a favor? There is a student from my class who missed the whole of the last semester because she was very sick. I promised her I would give her all the course material and summaries. She came here especially today to get them, but actually I don’t feel like giving them to her after all. Could you call her for ￼￼￼￼￼me and tell her I didn’t come here?”
This time, 81.8 per cent of the students in the background music condition agreed to perform this request, compared with just 33 per cent of those in the control condition. The findings are all the more striking given that the researchers’ requests in both experiments were based on such thin justifications (e.g. “I don’t feel like giving them to her after all”).
Why should positive background music render us more willing to perform harmful acts? Ziv isn’t sure – she measured her participants’ mood in a questionnaire but found no differences between the music and control groups. She speculates that perhaps familiar, positive music fosters feelings of closeness among people through a shared emotional experience. “In the setting of the present studies,” she said, “measuring connectedness or liking to the experimenter would have been out of place, but it is possible that a social bond was created.”
Ziv, N. (2015). Music and compliance: Can good music make us do bad things? Psychology of Music DOI: 10.1177/0305735615598855
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