How Music Can Alter Moral Judgments
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.
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