July 20, 2024


I Fall For Art

How Do Song Lyrics Influence Behavior? Lyrics Prime Behavior For Good and Bad

As I write this article, I am listening to the new Black Eyed Peas song, ‘I Gotta Feeling’, which begins with the lyrics:

“I gotta feeling that tonight’s gonna be a good night,
tonight’s gonna be a good night,
tonight’s gonna be a good, good night.”

The song makes me feel optimistic, energizes me, and gives me hope. This begs the question, how do music lyrics prime the mind to receive and interpret information?

Words Can Unknowingly Affect Behavior

Hundreds of studies have shown that words powerfully influence thinking, behavior, and mood, and much of it occurs without conscious awareness. Favorite songs are listened to over and over hundreds or thousands of times so it makes good sense to speculate that music lyrics may have a profound impact on the listener’s perception of the world, other people, and which emotions are experienced as well as the frequency of those emotions.

Most of Mind Works outside Conscious Awareness

In psychology, researchers are beginning to grasp the significance of the workings of the mind beyond the conscious experience. Conscious awareness is merely the jumping off point when exploring the mind. There is now considerable agreement among neuroscientists that most cognitive processing takes place outside of conscious awareness. Roughly 90-95% of mental activity occurs outside conscious awareness. Much of this ‘back office’ activity is automatic and emotional. Much of this activity is taking place just below the level of our awareness.

Subconscious Activity Impacts Daily Behavior

Despite the lack of awareness, subconscious activity has a tremendous impact on how the world is perceived through the senses, day-to-day behaviors, emotions felt and satisfaction with life. For example, numerous studies have been done on the phenomenon known as priming. Priming is when a person is exposed to certain stimulus, such as words, lyrics, or surroundings, and their subconscious mind is activated. Once activated, the person tends to act in ways that are consistent with the stimulus without awareness of why they are behaving in that manner.  Priming has been shown to influence behavior in dramatic ways.

Example of the Simplicity of a Psychological Priming Study

Let me explain these types of studies by way of example. Imagine you volunteered for the following experiment: You are given four jumbled sentences by a researcher who tells you to come get her when you’ve finished unscrambling them (so that the sentences are meaningful).  There is one extra word in each sentence does not need to be used. For instance, you may be presented with something such as… ‘her interrupt   bother usually they’ As the subject, you would translate this mess into something meaningful such as… ‘They usually interrupt her’ or ‘They usually bother her.’ A few minutes later, you finish the task of unscrambling the four sentences and walk down the hallway to find the researcher. You find her but she’s in the midst of a conversation with a stranger and isn’t paying any attention to you. What do you do? For those people who unscrambled sentences which contained one word per sentence having to do with rude behavior, such as ‘rash,’ ‘aggressive,’ ‘bother,’ and ‘intrude,’ you are far more likely to interrupt the researcher within 2 minutes and say, ‘Hey, I’m done. What’s next?’

Priming Can Make People More Rude or More Subservient

On the other hand, if you unscrambled sentences in which the one rude word was swapped with a polite word such as ‘respect,’ ‘nice,’ or ‘courteous,’ the odds are that you will sit there passively for up to 10 minutes until the researcher finishes her conversation.  And you will have no idea what influenced you to be so docile.

Priming Can Make Folks Act Older, More Forgetful

These experiments have been replicated over and over. One experiment had a group of people simply read a list of words where some of the words had to do with stereotypes of elderly people, such as ‘retirement,’ ‘Florida,’ and ‘bald.’  Sure enough, participants who were ‘primed’ with elderly-related words instantly began acting consistent with the elderly stereotype. They walked more slowly down the hallway, they walked with their shoulders slightly more hunched over, and their short-term memory became worse than the control group. Merely reading the list with words related to old age led to forgetfulness and other behavioral changes. The frightening thing about these experiments is that the group given the words related to elderly stereotypes could not remember any words about the elderly in the original list of words. So they were influenced by the words and then forgot all about what it was that influenced them. All of this groundwork brings me to the latest research, which came out June 25th, 2009, demonstrating that song lyrics prime behavior as well. When asked to fill in the missing song lyrics for different songs, participants’ behaviors and attitudes changed in startling ways.

Patriotic Songs Make People Close-Minded and More Prejudiced

Donald Saucier at Kansas State University found that when people filled in the lyrics for patriotic songs, such as ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ they became more close-minded, prejudiced and less empathetic. They did not put themselves in the shoes of another person to view the world through different eyes.

Children’s Songs Lead to More Acceptance and Empathy

What’s more, when folks filled in lyrics to songs such as ‘The Itsy Bitsy Spider’, they became more pro-social, reporting more accepting attitudes towards other people and more empathy. The hypothesis is that this is due to the strong association most people have with such childhood songs to happiness or contentment in their own childhood. In conclusion, musical lyrics have an impact on attitudes towards others, emotions felt and how frequently they are experienced, and how the world is perceived. Given the research, it makes sense to closely look at the lyrics of the songs you listen to frequently. They may be impacting you more than you ever realized.  

To this end, I have created a list of over 600 songs which support and augment pro-social behaviors based on the latest findings of positive psychology available for free at www.guidetoself.com in the Articles section.