Researchers Test The Effects Of Background Music On People

Aug 30, 2016
Originally published on June 15, 2017 5:21 pm
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And I'm David Greene. I'm in the studio with NPR's social science correspondent, Shankar Vedantam, who usually comes in here with some unusual, sometimes weird stories. And today, he is here to talk about - wait for it - the background music on shark documentaries.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: That's right, David. And, in fact, I'm not just going to tell you about the social science experiment that was conducted. I'm actually going to run it on you.

GREENE: Great.

VEDANTAM: Are you willing to be a volunteer, David?

GREENE: I am always ready, yes.

VEDANTAM: All right, so the researchers, Andrew Nosal, Elizabeth Keenan, Phillip Hastings and Ayelet Gneezy, they recruited more than 600 volunteers.

GREENE: People - people, not sharks.

VEDANTAM: Right (laughter), not sharks.

GREENE: OK, good, good, good.

VEDANTAM: In a number of experiments they had the volunteers watch a 60-second documentary about sharks. In one case, they played this soundtrack.


GREENE: Sounds aquatic.

VEDANTAM: And in another case, they played this one.


VEDANTAM: The question for you, David, is which one makes you feel like you're watching an uplifting documentary about one of the wonders of nature, and which one makes you feel like you're being menaced by a terrible monster?

GREENE: Wow, if only math exam in high school were this easy. I think the second one makes me feel like it's "Jaws," and it's very ominous and scary.

VEDANTAM: So not surprisingly, that's exactly what the researchers found as well. Now, you can say this is wasted research money because it's telling us something we know intuitively, but there are actually two things that make this valuable. One, it actually measures something we all think we know about. And sometimes when you do that, you find stuff that you don't expect. Second - and more important - the researchers find in one of their experiments that volunteers who hear the ominous music are less inclined to offer support for shark conservation.

GREENE: Wow, because they think these are evil creatures...

VEDANTAM: Exactly.

GREENE: ...Who don't need to be protected.

VEDANTAM: Now, you know, every musician and audio producer understands this already, but the music behind a movie or a documentary is extraordinarily powerful at shaping how people think and feel.

GREENE: You've just raised the salary of every person who works on soundtracks for movies now. I think that their value is not - will never be questioned.

VEDANTAM: It's a well-earned money, David.

GREENE: Thank you, Shankar.

VEDANTAM: Thanks, David.

GREENE: That is Shankar Vedantam, who regularly joins us to talk about social science research. And he's the host of a podcast that explores the unseen patterns in human behavior. It is called Hidden Brain. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.