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Does Music Change How We Make Decisions?

A recent experiment suggests that specific music patterns can change how people process information.

Is it possible that our judgments and decision-making are heavily guided by sound patterns? A recent paper published by Jochim Hansen and Johann Melzner in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology has proved this to be true. A series of experiments have verified that music does in fact shape the way the human brain interprets information. A group of 100 participants listened to one out of five distinct sounds ranging from “concrete sound” to “abstract sound” at 70dB each. The results that followed were the first to show that musical sound parameters can affect our construal levels.

The basic music building blocks we hear within a song falling under any genre modify the way we think. Hansen and Melzner maintain that sound patterns with tritone and the perfect fifth very much tie into the psychological concepts of distance and proximity as well as abstractness and concreteness. The musical patterns utilized in the experiments were designed to relate to the construal level theory. If you don't feel like getting lost in a deep explanation of the study, we suggest skipping to the last paragraph to find out what this all means for your brain.

The construal level theory constitutes the relationship between psychological distance and how our perception of information is abstract or concrete. More specifically, sound patterns related to distance and abstractness elicits abstract construal while proximity and concreteness trigger concrete construal. But what does this mean exactly? It means that our psychological distance from objects heightens our propensity to generate more high-level thought patterns. Increased levels of interpretation usually neglect essential aspects and tend to think in terms of a global scale. Proximity contradicts this statement as proximity generally exerts low-level construal, meaning it is more in-depth with richer detail and displays local perception elements. The construal level theory also supports the phrase “To see the forest instead of the trees.” More plainly put, abstract construal is more inclined to think about the bigger picture on a global scale such as the forest while concrete construal thinks about details such as the trees inside the forest.

There are three main factors that affect our construal level in regards to musical patterns: reverberation, novelty, and segmentation. In any song, reverb delivers a sense of depth and distance from the source of a sound. The effect of reverberation in respect to judgment with spatial distance is that it provides a sense of far distance (psychologically speaking) therefore turning out broader categories. Novelty is also important with this experiment; as a direct experience with an object or event decreases, psychological distances increases. This means that novelty leads to global perception and broader details. In the experiments conducted, they manipulated the concept of novelty by using harmonic modulation and a series of combinations of musical keys delivering either a familiar or unusual sound. C major and D major both share the same tonal material while C major and F# major together display more unfamiliar sounds. Lastly, segmentation plays a key role as a high segmentation psychologically guides the mind towards generating smaller units or concrete construal. More segmentation relates to the trees while less segmentation relates to the forest.

In respect to these three factors of construal level, the experiments performed were separated into five sounds including concrete sound, reverberation, C-F#, nonsegmentation, and abstract sound. Specifically, one of the experiments asked participants to imagine themselves buying a toaster via Amazon.com. The idea behind this experiment is the differing values between aggregate and individualized information and how they process it. Toaster A was ranked 4.5 out of 5 stars while Toaster B was ranked 2.5 out of 5 stars. Toaster A also listed a single customer review stating: “Toaster does not work very well and is not recommended.” Toaster B listed a customer review as well: “Toaster works as advertised and is a wonderful addition to the kitchen.” After being exposed to one of the five sounds, the results showed that aggregate information correlates more to abstract sound while individualized information correlates to concrete sound (aggregate information represents the star rating while individualized information represents the reviews). Relating back to tritone and the perfect fifth, tritone has been connected to aggregate while the perfect fifth connects to individualized information. Tritone also proved to form fewer categories than the perfect fifth.

So what does all of this science mean in regards to music? It means that music plays a bigger role in our lives than we thought. The fact that music evokes deep emotions and feelings in the human brain is nothing new, but this study suggests that musical patterns can determine a lot more than just emotion. While little research has been conducted thus far, these series of experiments have successfully proven that music can sway one’s judgment and how they process information. The construal level theory is fairly complex, as well is the concept that sound patterns dictate how we make decisions and may somewhat rely on the psychological distance of an object. Reverb, C major, segmentation, it all binds together into a massive influence on our daily lives. These essential aspects of music have demonstrated a legitimate impact on how the brain groups categories, how we assess information, and our outlook of visual patterns.

[H/T: Journal of Experimental Social Psychology]

Cover photo credit: Lifehacker

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