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Does Good Music Make Us Better People?

A recent Japanese study suggests that listening to good music might make us more altruistic, while bad music makes us more selfish. From the abstract:

Participants were 22 undergraduate and postgraduate students who were divided into two groups, the in-group and the out-group, and they acted as dictators. The dictators listened to their own preferred “chill-inducing” music, to music they disliked, or to silence, and then played the [dictator game]. In this hypothetical experiment, the dictators were given real money (which they did not keep) and were asked to distribute it to the recipients, who were presented as stylized images of men and women displayed on a computer screen. The dictators played the [dictator game] both before and after listening to the music. Both male and female dictators gave more money after listening to their preferred music and less after listening to the music they disliked, whereas silence had no effect on the allocated amounts.

By “chill-inducing” the authors are talking about music that the listener enjoys, e.g. music to which the listener wants to chill rather than music that literally induces chills. Lots of caveats here, of course: it’s a small-scale study, the dictator game is far too low-risk to be a reliable indicator of altruism, and so forth. But we’ve already established that music can increase stamina, so it’s not a huge stretch to speculate that it might increase or diminish our capacity for altruism, too. 

And if it does, it might well be that our current shift away from radio stations and towards curated streaming playlists could have some subtle but positive long-term effects on the way we behave. It might also help begin to explain why we, as a species, have been so consistently drawn to music for as long as we have—and why the shared experience of live music is still such an important communal bonding experience for so many people.

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Tom Head is an author or coauthor of 29 nonfiction books, columnist, scriptwriter, research paralegal, occasional hellraiser, and proud Jackson native. His book Possessions and Exorcisms (Fact or Fiction?) covers the recent demand for exorcists over the past 30 years and demonic possession.
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