Caring and Generosity through Music

It’s not so hard to be cynical when it comes to pop stars who record songs suggesting people caring more about others. And of course, this kind of idea in music can make them feel a bit guilty because of their lavish lifestyles. So, can a song actually change people’s behavior? The answer is yes. Sometimes it can. It is the conclusion of the newest study which discovered that playing songs with kind of pro-social lyrics in a German cafe actually increased the chances that patrons would spend some more for free-trade coffee.

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

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Some laboratory studies, starting with the one from 2008, have concluded that exposure to lyrics that promote peace and love increases listeners’ general empathy. Nicolas Ruth wanted to test whether this would hold true in a real life, and produce visible changes in people’s behavior after a while.

The study started at a café in the city of Wuerzburg, in southern Germany. For over eight days between 10 a.m. and noon, the background music consisted of several specially prepared playlists. One list included songs with pro-social lyrics, and another had the same artists, but singing songs with neutral lyrics. The good example would be Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” or Michael Jackson’s “Heal the World”, as a part of the first playlist. The other list included same artists singing “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Dirty Diana”.

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Nicolas Ruth explained: “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.” It wasn’t a sort of expensive study about showing “environmental and social consciousness”, considering that the fair-trade coffee costs only 0.3 Euros extra, around 34 cents.

The results of the study proved to be astonishing. Ruth wrote: “Information about fair-trade coffee, including its benefits, was presented on a blackboard in the center of the café. People who were exposed to the pro-social music ordered more than twice as much fair-trade coffee than those in the neutral condition.” The 38 percent of people ordered the free-trade coffee when they heard songs like John Lennon’s “Imagine” played in the background. Only 18.4 percent of people were exposed to non-political songs.

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

This whole research reminds us that environmental factors can really influence our behavior, even in positive ways. So, we always knew that music can change the way we feel at the moment, depending on its emotion. But this study added another idea to the influence of music on us, which is the change of behavior, not only emotions.

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