Good music makes us do bad things: The effect of music on compliance

People are more likely to agree to cause someone else harm when pleasant background music is playing, according to two new studies published in Psychology of Music.

The studies challenge the common thinking that pleasant, familiar music is related to positive feelings and behavior, while unpleasant or aggressive music leads to the opposite.

“The aim of the present studies was to examine whether music which is perceived as happy and positive may lead us to comply with a request implying harm to a third person,” said Naomi Ziv, corresponding author.

Study 1

The goal of the first study was to determine the relationship between pleasant music and compliance. Researchers also wanted to see if participant mood, song lyrics, or knowledge of the song contributed to the effect.

120 participants—university students obligated to participate in research for course credit—were told the study was about music and cognition. A male research assistant met each participant individually and played either a familiar, liked song; a familiar song with lyrics in a foreign language; an unfamiliar, but pleasant song; or no music at all. Participants then completed a cognitive task and a survey.

The assistant then told each participant that there was another student coming who also needed course credit, but he “didn’t feel like seeing her.” He asked each participant to call her as a favor and tell her he had already left—and not to come in.

“This request was used since it requires the participant to harm another person who is in the same status and situation as the participant himself,” said Ziv. Also, there was no reasonable justification for the request, other than that the assistant “didn’t feel like it.”

Participants who listened to the music were significantly more likely to comply with the request than those in the control group. Additionally, each music group was compared with the others to examine possible biases. Scientists found that participants who heard the familiar music were more likely to comply than those who heard the unfamiliar music. The data suggest a link between familiar, pleasant music and compliance, but the first study still left one factor unexamined: gender.

Study 2

Previous studies have shown a link between gender and authority: men historically have more power than women. To account for the bias, a female research assistant conducted Study 2. The study was also voluntary, unlike Study 1, so the assistant had no power over the 63 participants.

The procedure was similar: participants were individually given the same initial speech and tasks. However, this time, only familiar, pleasant music was used.

The assistant told each participant that her severely ill classmate missed an entire semester and was coming to pick up course materials, but she changed her mind and “didn’t feel like giving them to her.” She asked participants to call the classmate and tell her the assistant wasn’t there.

Like in the first study, participants who listened to the music were significantly more likely to comply than those who had no music.

Going Forward

The results are surprising, and the team believes more research is needed to confirm the findings. Several factors might affect the results of future studies, including the severity of the requests.

“Repeating the studies using more extreme requests, implying more serious and direct harm to a third person, would allow a clear evaluation of the strength and generalizability of the findings,” said Ziv.