Over the last decade, one of the most fascinating areas of research in psychological science has been the study of “priming” behavior. Social scientists found, for example, that a reminder of mortality, such as “orange alerts,” primes voters to choose a strong, charismatic leader; and marketers proved that $3000 handbags in store windows help prime shoppers to consider $100 T-shirts a bargain. But perhaps the most powerful “prime mover” is music, which can change our moods and our behavior within seconds — whether we are aware of it or not.
In this latest report, from Kansas State University, researchers looked at the positive and negative responses stimulated by music lyrics from a variety of song categories, including patriotic (“The Star-Spangled Banner”), secular and religious Christmas (“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “O Holy Night”) as well as neutral children’s songs, like “Itsy Bitsy Spider.” After listening to the songs, study participants filled out a survey that asked questions about their religion, their attitude toward other cultures, and diversity. Half completed the survey before the lyrics exercise; the other half waited until after the exercise. The researchers then looked at the surveys to determine if there was a change in the responses before and after listening to the songs, mainly to see if the music and lyrics created a pro-social response, like empathy, or an anti-social response, like aggression. The preliminary findings showed that the patriotic songs made listeners significantly more close-minded and prejudiced. “Once they were in a patriotic point of view,” said one of the researchers, “they were less empathetic. They didn’t put themselves in other people’s perspective.” While this may not be surprising, imagine what it would be like if the NFL opened games with “Itsy Bitsy Spider” or “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”!