Pump Up the Jams and Feel Powerful
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Leadership Aug 4, 2014

Pump Up the Jams and Feel Powerful

The right back­ground music can affect how you con­strue infor­ma­tion and your will­ing­ness to take initiative.

Music can empower you to take initiative.

Yevgenia Nayberg

Based on the research of

Dennis Hsu

Li Huang

Loran Nordgren

Derek D. Rucker

Adam D. Galinsky

It is hard to go too long with­out hear­ing music. Music can wake us in the morn­ing and bright­en up our com­mute. Music greets us at cof­fee shops, depart­ment stores, bars, and gyms. Music teach­es us the alpha­bet and implores us to fall in and out of love. Yet, despite the cen­tral role that it plays in the lives of so many peo­ple around the world, we are still learn­ing about music’s trans­for­ma­tive effects on the psyche.

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In a recent arti­cle, a team of researchers inves­ti­gat­ed one poten­tial effect of music: psy­cho­log­i­cal empow­er­ment. Their research ques­tion was sim­ple yet intrigu­ing: Could lis­ten­ing to the right kind of music — even in the back­ground — make us feel more pow­er­ful and in control?

Cer­tain­ly many ath­letes believe in the pow­er of music. Rit­u­als exist in all sports,” says Derek Ruck­er, a pro­fes­sor of mar­ket­ing at the Kel­logg School of Man­age­ment. One rit­u­al we have not­ed is that ath­letes often arrive at the sta­di­um wear­ing ear­phones. And these ath­letes often emerge from the lock­er room to the sound of music pound­ing. It is as if the music is offer­ing a psy­cho­log­i­cal coat of armor for the com­pe­ti­tion about to occur.” Den­nis Hsu, a fac­ul­ty mem­ber at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Hong Kong who received his PhD at Kel­logg, adds, Sta­di­um crowds are stirred and fired up by deaf­en­ing music way before the com­pe­ti­tion actu­al­ly takes place.”

You might try [this] in cer­tain sit­u­a­tions where you want to be empowered.”

Giv­en these ubiq­ui­tous ath­let­ic exam­ples, the researchers were curi­ous about whether music real­ly did pro­vide a type of psy­cho­log­i­cal armor. So Ruck­er, Hsu, and three col­leagues — Loran Nord­gren, an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of man­age­ment and orga­ni­za­tions at Kel­logg, Li Huang, a Kel­logg grad­u­ate now on fac­ul­ty at INSEAD, and Adam Galin­sky, a for­mer Kel­logg pro­fes­sor now at Colum­bia Busi­ness School — designed a series of stud­ies to find out.

Get Ready for This”

The researchers first iden­ti­fied which music is like­ly to empow­er its lis­ten­ers and which would leave them feel­ing cold. Their process was straight­for­ward: They brought peo­ple into the lab, played them a num­ber of songs, and sim­ply asked them to rate on a sev­en-point scale how pow­er­ful, dom­i­nant, and deter­mined the songs made them feel. The win­ners — Queen’s We Will Rock You,” 2 Unlimited’s Get Ready for This,” and 50 Cent’s In Da Club” — were com­piled into a high-pow­er” playlist. Three oth­er songs, sim­i­lar in style (sports music and hip-hop) but rat­ed as less empow­er­ing, became the low-pow­er” playlist.

Then, a new group of par­tic­i­pants lis­tened to either the high- or low-pow­er playlist as they com­plet­ed dif­fer­ent tasks. In one exper­i­ment, par­tic­i­pants were shown word frag­ments like P _ _ E R, which could either be com­plet­ed as a word relat­ed to dom­i­nance (e.g., POW­ER) or as an unre­lat­ed word (e.g., PAPER). Sure enough, those lis­ten­ing to the high-pow­er playlist were more like­ly to com­plete the frag­ment using pow­er words than those lis­ten­ing to the low-pow­er playlist. Because par­tic­i­pants were instruct­ed to com­plete frag­ments with the first word that came to mind, the study sug­gests that the empow­er­ing effects of music may be some­what uncon­scious and automatic.

Chang­ing Behavior

In the sub­se­quent exper­i­ments, the researchers test­ed whether empow­er­ing music makes peo­ple behave as if they are, in fact, more pow­er­ful. One thing we know from pri­or research is that peo­ple who feel pow­er­ful tend to make the first offer in nego­ti­a­tions. Essen­tial­ly, pow­er is a propen­si­ty to act, to take charge of the sit­u­a­tion,” explains Ruck­er. After lis­ten­ing to music, par­tic­i­pants were asked whether they would pre­fer to go first or sec­ond in a debate. Indeed, those who lis­tened to the high-pow­er playlist opt­ed to go first almost twice as often (34%) as those who’d lis­tened to the low-pow­er playlist (20%).

So what is it about pow­er­ful music that makes it so … pow­er­ful? In their final exper­i­ment, the researchers inves­ti­gat­ed one par­tic­u­lar musi­cal fea­ture — the lev­el of bass — by cre­at­ing heav­ier- ver­sus lighter-bass ver­sions of the same songs. Lis­ten­ers found the bass-heavy ver­sions more empow­er­ing than the low-bass ones, both con­scious­ly and uncon­scious­ly. Why is this the case? Per­haps we are hard­wired to asso­ciate boom­ing tones with large, pow­er­ful objects and expe­ri­ences. Think Darth Vad­er. He was one of the most intim­i­dat­ing and for­mi­da­ble screen vil­lains that we’ve ever had, and he had that very deep bass voice to sig­ni­fy his unsur­passed pres­ence and dom­i­nance,” explains Ruck­er. Or per­haps the bass notes get under our skin and make us feel large and pow­er­ful. What­ev­er the rea­son, the researchers believe the lev­el of bass is only one of many musi­cal qual­i­ties — vol­ume, tem­po, genre, and lyrics, among oth­ers — with the poten­tial to affect our expe­ri­ence of empowerment.

Jams in the Workplace?

The research sug­gests that music’s abil­i­ty to pump us up may indeed have util­i­ty out­side of the sta­di­um. Just as pro­fes­sion­al ath­letes might put on empow­er­ing music before they take the field to get them in a pow­er­ful state of mind,” says Ruck­er, you might try [this] in cer­tain sit­u­a­tions where you want to be empow­ered.” Per­haps you have a meet­ing sched­uled with your boss or an impor­tant client. Or per­haps you have a job inter­view. Pre­vi­ous research by Ruck­er and col­leagues found that feel­ings of pow­er lead to bet­ter per­for­mance in inter­view sit­u­a­tions. Empow­er­ing music might be used strate­gi­cal­ly to get us in the right frame of mind.”

The researchers hope these stud­ies pave the way for expand­ed inves­ti­ga­tions into music’s impact on our minds and behav­iors. This is work that might be of val­ue to both man­agers and retail­ers: What we want to know is when does music have an effect on employ­ees, and when should I care about it as a man­ag­er? Equal­ly impor­tant, when should I not care about it?”

Adver­tis­ers, too, should take note. Giv­en that music can have psy­cho­log­i­cal trig­gers, what you want to do in your adver­tise­ment is align with how you want your con­sumer to think and feel.” says Ruck­er. And more broad­ly, research should not lim­it itself to music. We can also con­sid­er how oth­er envi­ron­men­tal cues affect our behav­ior. Aparna Labroo, a pro­fes­sor of mar­ket­ing at Kel­logg, has not­ed, for instance, that turn­ing up the lights can inten­si­fy emotions.

But for now, don’t be ashamed to rock out to empow­er­ing tunes — in the show­er, in the car, or while prepar­ing for that job interview.

Featured Faculty

Loran Nordgren

Associate Professor of Management & Organizations

Derek D. Rucker

Sandy & Morton Goldman Professor of Entrepreneurial Studies in Marketing, Professor of Marketing, Co-chair of Faculty Research

About the Writer

Jessica Love is the staff science writer and editor at Kellogg Insight.

About the Research

Hsu, Dennis, Li Huang, Loran F. Nordgren, Derek D. Rucker, and Adam D. Galinsky. Forthcoming. “The Music of Power: Perceptual and Behavioral Consequences of Powerful Music.” Social Psychological and Personality Science.

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