’Tis the season to make decisions

December 17, 2014

Researchers look at whether music influences the risks you take

Buy that extra-expensive gift for your significant other? Speak out on a controversial topic at the office holiday party? Take a chance and go down that double black diamond ski run? Our lives are full of decisions, but this time of year, in particular, can be a decision-making and risk-taking minefield.

Could the musical soundtrack of our lives—whether it’s jingle bells, smooth jazz or a driving bass line—impact the choices we make? Faculty members Dr. Rickard Enstroem, Decision Sciences and Supply Chain Management, and Dr. Rodney Schmaltz, Psychology, wanted to find out. And what they discovered might surprise you.

Measuring the impact of life’s musical soundtrack

Rickard and Rodney invited over 300 study participants to the Psychology department’s music lab, outfitted them with headphones and assigned them to soundproof booths. They were then asked to fill out a survey that used a scale to assess the likelihood they would be willing to take specific risks in six areas—social, health, safety, financial, ethical and recreational. The examples included everything from going without sunscreen on a hot day to skydiving or bungee jumping.

Choosing what music to play while people were making those choices was tricky, according to Rodney and Rickard, so they based their song choices on previous research that demonstrated how music can be broken down into five key dimensions. Those dimensions ranged from mellow (smooth and relaxing), unpretentious (country and bluegrass) and sophisticated (jazz and classical), to intense (hard rock or rap) and contemporary (rhythmic and percussive).

Once the surveys were complete (including those from a control group who completed theirs in silence), the two researchers set out to see how different types of music affected risk-taking.

IMAGE_STORY_Rickard_RodThe results: mellow, unpretentious and intense

“We found that unpretentious, mellow and intense music were positively related to social risk-taking—things like starting a new career in your mid-30s, speaking your mind on an unpopular issue in a meeting at work or moving to a city far away from your family,” says Rodney.

But the same two types of music were negatively related to recreational risk-taking—bungee jumping or skydiving. And if you look at intense music, those findings flip.

“People listening to intense music are more likely to take recreational risks and less likely to take social risks. The cool part about it is that it counters the idea that intense music is generally ‘bad,’ particularly for adolescents—in the ’50s, for example, intense music was blamed for promiscuous sexual behaviour in teens, in the ’80s it was linked to drug use and in the ’90s it was violence.”

While someone listening to intense music may be more likely to take a recreational risk—piloting a small plane or whitewater rafting—the same music doesn’t have any impact on decisions about health risks, including sexual promiscuity.

Risky business—music as a tool in marketing and beyond

Rickard says that while this is just the first in a series of studies the two researchers plan to conduct, the ubiquitous nature of music in marketing could mean these findings could have some interesting implications.

“There is this idea in retail that you should always have music on, but the type of music needs to fit with what is going on in the store,” explains Rodney. “If the product is risk-related, you would want the music playing in the background to fit that.”

And the impact could reach beyond the retail sector, according to Rickard. “Music could be a powerful tool in other sectors, such as health, where it might be used to help instill positive behaviours or illustrate the dangers of certain activities.”

Rodney and Rickard are in the process of submitting this research for publication, and the students in their courses next semester will likely see parts of their research in the classroom, whether as an example in a business statistics course or as part of a psychology lecture around the impact music has on people.

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