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Stanford Medicine

Behavioral Science, Mental Health, Research

Pump up the bass, not the volume, to feel more powerful

Pump up the bass, not the volume, to feel more powerful

runner_iPodAs any seasoned athlete or fitness fanatic knows, a meticulously curated playlist is key when staying focused before a big game or getting through a tough workout. But what is it about music that transforms our psychological state and make us feel more powerful?

To answer this question, researchers at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University identified so-called “highest power” songs (such as Queen’s “We Will Rock You“) and “lowest power” tunes (such as Fatboy Slim’s “Because We Can“) and then performed a series of experiments designed to ascertain how the music affected individuals’ sense of power, perceived sense of control, competitiveness and abstract thinking. According to a release, their findings showed “that the high-power music not only evoked a sense of power unconsciously, but also systematically generated the three downstream consequences of power.”

Since participants didn’t report increased feelings of empowerment after reading the lyrics of the songs, researchers turned their attention to how manipulation of bass levels impacted listeners. More from the release:

In the bass experiments, the researchers asked participants to listen to novel instrumental music pieces in which bass levels were digitally varied. In one experiment, they surveyed participants about their self-reported feelings of power, and in another, they asked them to perform a word-completion task designed to test implicit, or unconscious, feelings of power. They found that those who listened to the heavy-bass music reported more feelings of power and generated more power-related words in the implicit task than those listening to the low-bass music.

The effects of the bass levels support one possible explanation for why music makes people feel more powerful: the “contagion hypothesis.” The idea is that when people hear specific music components that express a sense of power, they mimic these feelings internally. “Importantly, because we used novel, never-before-heard music pieces in these experiments, it suggests that the effect may sometimes arise purely out of contagion,” [Dennis Hsu, PhD,] says. “Of course, this does not preclude the possibility that music could induce a sense of power through other processes, such as conditioning.”

The “conditioning hypothesis” suggests that certain pieces of music might trigger powerful experiences because these experiences are often paired with that particular music. For example, music used frequently at sports events may elicit powerful feelings because of the association with power, rewards, and winning (e.g., “We Are the Champions” is often played to celebrate victory).

Previously: Why listening to music boosts fitness performance, Can music benefit cancer patients? and Prescription playlists for treating pain and depression?
Photo by Bert Heird

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