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How Music Can Alter Moral Judgments

2012 September 23
by Eric Horowitz

Over the last few years psychologists and political scientists have built a strong case against the idea that people have an uncompromising moral code. Research has shown that views about morality are influenced by factors such as a person’s recent actions (see here and here), the actions of others in their group, and even the actions of strangers who have similar birthdays. A new study adds to the malleability of our moral judgments by demonstrating that they can also be influenced by music.

In the initial experiment participants listened to Japanese “noise music,” which induced them to feel angry, or a soothing piece of classical music, which induced them to feel happy. A third group served as a control and listened to no music. When later presented with a series of moral vignettes (e.g. a man cuts in front of cars in order to beat the traffic) participants who were angry judged the actions of the characters to be more wrong. In a follow-up experiment, happy participants who had listened to classical music believed people were more obligated to help those in need, and rated the help as more praiseworthy.

The lesson is that our moral judgments are shaped by a host of seemingly arbitrary factors. Instead of living by an unflinching set of moral guidelines, our judgements about right and wrong tend to be uniquely constructed in the moment through the interaction between our relatively static system of beliefs and a variety of contextual factors. That means when something outrages you, it may be wise to take a step back and think if anything about your mood, your recent actions, or recent world events may be influencing your emotions.

Most importantly, because undesirable music can make you angry and anger can lead to judgements that moral behavior is less obligatory, the study finally provides proof that listening to Nickelback can make you a bad person.
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Seidel, A., & Prinz, J. (2012). Mad and glad: Musically induced emotions have divergent impact on morals Motivation and Emotion DOI: 10.1007/s11031-012-9320-7

7 Responses leave one →
  1. gavin martin permalink
    September 23, 2012

    The basis of this “fact” that music can make us bad people seems bias, when we listen to music we listen to lyrics yes but, if its talking about cocaine or such drugs and distributing it doesnt mean we will go and do such things. We dont become angry when listening to music, you have already felt the emotions of anger when you listen to the music so we listen to the music to match our moods. Music can change our moods also, listening to music usually is to create enjoyment, whi9ch would mean the prodution of dopamine. I dont believe the statement of saying if we listen to nickelback we are bad people, i would say that we are in angry states of mind and listening to this type of music calms or excites us. Most athletes listen to music to get ready for athletic competitions so, if certain music makes us bad people then listening to some heavy rock music or rap music would be influencing them to be bad like going and hurting somebody or etc, but no they are only trying to get excited and to raise their moods. If we take away music this would people to find alternative ways of influencing their moods even more.

  2. Anthony Laws permalink
    September 23, 2012

    Gavin, yes I agree. A lot of people listen to music to sort of ‘psych’ themselves out. Athletes may listen to a song to get an adrenaline rush going. This reaction and the reactions of the subjects who listened to ‘angry’ music and those who listened to classical is processed by the amygdala part of the brain. Since it also forms memories, those strong in emotion really stick here, it could mean that those who listen to ‘angry’ music and make that connection tend to feel more enraged. But some people can interpret the very same music as happy. Since this is the case, not everyone is the same.

  3. Eric Horowitz permalink*
    September 23, 2012

    I think you are slightly misinterpreting the study. It wasn’t about music that’s stereotypically considered “angry,” it was about music that somebody finds unpleasant and thus listening to it makes the person angry. Obviously if you like listening to heavy rock or metal then it would make you happy, and you would be more likely to make the moral judgements of a happy person. In other words, when music made people angry it wasn’t a specific type of “angry” music, it was music that people found unpleasant (for the purposes of the experiment, the researchers found a specific type of music people were very likely to find unpleasant.)

  4. Mackenna Volkman permalink
    September 23, 2012

    I believe that the knowledge that music can change our mood is a good thing to take into account. There must be a psychological reason for this. The way our brain controlling our emotions responds to certain situations, can very well be associated to the type of music we listen to. Emotions are constantly changing; hormones in our brain are constantly flowing. Music is a strong influence on our society this day and age, I believe that it is highly accurate that music effects our attitude.

  5. Anna Dorsick permalink
    September 23, 2012

    I don’t think that music has everything to do with it. You can’t just blame your bad behavior on a “Oh well I was listening to scream music it made me do it” I do believe that music can affect us, but how much it affects us depends on home much we allow. I don’t go around being depressed because I listened to a sad song on a country station. It is all what we allow. I know that most of the time other objects that are not in your control affect your behavior/mood. I don’t think that me listening to “nice music” compared to “rage music” affects how I take the dude cutting in front of me while I’m driving….I think it depends on what kind of day I had all together and how much of a hurry i am in, or if I’m hungry.

  6. Alexis Thurston permalink
    September 25, 2012

    I totally believe music has the ability to alter your moods. Just as TV and Video games can promote violence, so can music. Rap music encourages sex, money and drugs, AKA “pussy, money, weed”. It encourages staying up all night, cheating on loved ones, running away, guns, and killing people, breaking the law and doing drugs. Kids don’t see anyone yelling at these ‘idols’ for behaving bad so why should they? Rap music puts people in a violent state of mind. Classical music however, makes you calm, and focused. Has anyone ever done something unlawful to Beethoven? I didn’t think so. Dub step music makes kids do drugs and go to raves. For me, dub step makes me speed while I’m driving. But dub step makes people want to go to clubs, take home drugs, have sex with some stranger in the bathroom and then dry hump some more strangers, and get wasted, but it’s okay because you’re a teenager. Wrong. Country music is said to make people depressed, but I find it just setting to mood to a good old summer night. It can be depressing as well though some songs are about being dying or something sad like getting cheated on. Disney music makes everyone happy; I mean this is the music our children should be listening to! Not Fergie! However, the music on z1077, while it does get the teenagers ready to go out for a good night, its brainwashing junk. And alternative music can get you in a violent mood as well, look at heavy metal or rock music which people kill themselves too, or bang their heads out too. I listen to all varieties of music. And while it’s not the music that makes you do things, the music sets the mood. If you’re sad or angry but on songs that will pump you up and get you in a good mood. It’s that easy. Moods can be altered just as easily as the song can be changed.

  7. Zac Perkins permalink
    September 27, 2012

    I do not think this study is very accurate. I do think that listening to certain types of music can effect your mood, but that depends on the type of music you like. The Japenese style of music in this study was picked to make people angry because most people would not find this music enjoyable, which is what causes them to act angry. When you are forced to listen to music that you do not like, it is understandable that it can cause you to be angry. In real life situations, you usually choose the style of music you listen to, which would be something that you enjoy. When you listen to music you like, it releases dopamine and that makes you happy. I think for this study to be more accurate, people should be allowed to listen to the music of their choice. Then you could see if different genres of music caused people to be more angry. I think that the people that were angry in this study wouldn’t be as angry if they could listen to the music of their choice.

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