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Can Listening to Aggressive Music Make You an Aggressive Person?

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Mon, Feb 7, 2011 at 2:57 PM

click to enlarge These people were ruined by Beethoven
  • These people were ruined by Beethoven

Here's a question that we're sure you always wanted to know and were afraid to ask: does listening to music make you a certain type of person, or are certain types of people drawn to certain kinds of music? The most recent issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology had an article that got us thinking about how to unravel this conundrum. Here are the conclusions from several studies that try to address the question: Can listening to aggressive music make you an aggressive person?

1. Men Who Listen to Misogynous Lyrics Respond By Being Aggressive Towards Women

Red Hot Chili Peppers playing what may be their most misogynous song, Sir Psycho Sexy

First, we have this study which suggests that people who are not particularly hateful or violent become more aggressive towards women shortly after listening to misogynous music. The abstract of this study contains what is perhaps the most compelling sentence we've ever read in an academic article: 'Male participants who were exposed to misogynous song lyrics administered more hot chili sauce to a female than to a male confederate.' Kind of bizarre, right? When you read the study, you find out that the chili was administered to a sandwich, not a female.

But whatever, there's a wordcount limit in these abstracts so I guess that accounts for the ambiguity. In any case: male and female participants were exposed to either misogynous or "neutral" song lyrics. Afterwards, in a seemingly unrelated marketing study that followed exposure to the music, they were asked to add hot chili sauce to a sandwich prepared for a male or female fellow participant. And--another fun fact we bet you never knew--the amount of added chili sauce is a valid indicator of the intensity of aggressive behavior according to this other study from 1998. Anyway, men who listened to misogynous music lyrics put more chili sauce on sandwiches intended for women than did their non-misogynous-listening male peers.

2. Aggressive Music Can Help People Who Already Feel Aggressive Channel Aggression Into Music Listening

An A-frames music video, directed by Wounded Lion drummer Monty Buckles. We love listening to the A-frames when we want an outlet for our frustration.

But then there's this: one study of adolescent boys concluded that listening to aggressive music didn't lead to aggressive behavior, but rather acted as an outlet for frustration and other aggressive thoughts. They concluded that music can be part of a process where the listener first directs anger into harmless activity (in this case, listening to something aggressive) and then redirects the modulated anger to constructive activity such as negotiation. In other words, music may help to let anger out and calm emotions down before any engagement in verbal confrontation. So this leads us to conclude that sure, someone in a bad mood might gravitate towards aggressive music, but the music doesn't cause aggression.

3. Listening to Antisocial Music Can Maybe Make You Antisocial Generally

Black Flag performing "Drinking and Driving"--a song that one would think is about antisocial behavior like drinking, driving, and going to work drunk.

This other study examined the effect of exposure antisocial music to see if it increased antisocial thoughts--not just to women eating sandwiches this time, but to everyone in general. They had participants listen to aggressive music and then do word completion exercises--kind of like Madlibs. The people who listened to the antisocial music were more likely to make aggressive word completions than their neutral-music-listening peers. So once again, we have some evidence that music can direct mood, rather than mood determining music selection.

4. Your Finger Length Moderates the Impact of Aggressive Music

Ween, who recently stopped by the Wiltern (check our review!), and their video for "Can't Put My Finger On It".

No, seriously. I guess you can counter the misogynous music by having long index fingers. This one study found that men whose index fingers were significantly shorter than their ring fingers had been exposed to more testosterone while in utero. Testosterone and aggression, of course, are related, and having shorter index fingers can act as a predictor of aggression. Men that were exposed to music with anti-social lyrics or themes responded aggressively, yes, however, those with shorter index fingers responded with more aggression than their long-index-fingered peers.

5. Nice Music Can Encourage Nice Feelings

Mia Doi Todd's truly prosocial song "Open Your Heart" in a video directed by Michel Gondry.

The most recent issue of the Journal of Social Psychology has an article that points out the deficit in these other studies: namely, they all try to see if aggressive music makes you do aggressive things, but they don't see if listening to nice music leads people to do nice things. Turns out that even if you don't have long index fingers you're cool--you can listen to nice music and maybe become a nicer person. In the study, they exposed participants to prosocial music like "Heal the World" (Michael Jackson), "Ein bißchen Frieden" (Nicole), "We are the World" (Liveaid), and "Help" (Beatles). Participants in the neutral condition were exposed to: "On the Line" (Michael Jackson), "Spiel um deine Seele" (Peter Maffay), "An Englishman in New York" (Sting), and "Octopus' Garden" (Beatles). And yes, some of these songs are in German because it was conducted at a university in Munich. Anyway, the people listening to the "prosocial" songs -even those listening to such banal tunes as "We are the World", had fewer aggressive thoughts than those who listened to neutral music. They measured this, again, by having participants do Madlib-like word completion exercises.

In conclusion, if you want to be a nice person, listen to nice music. And make sure you have long index fingers.

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