“Auditory cheesecake” is how famed cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker once described music. He called it an “exquisite confection crafted to tickle” the spots in the brain that leave us feeling happy and relaxed.
That rings true for music that’s akin to, say, Mozart—but what about Metallica? Lil’ Wayne? It’s harder to think of noisy, bass-heavy music as “cheesecake,” let alone accept that it’s tickling neurons.
Apparently it is. New research shows (pdf) that music with heavy bass makes people feel far more confident. Not only do they act more powerfully and decisively; that kind of music also improves their abstract thinking. The study’s findings suggest some big practical implications, says Derek Rucker, professor at Kellogg School of Management and one of the co-authors.
“Just as professional athletes might put on empowering music before they take the field to get them in a powerful state of mind,” Rucker told Kellogg Insight, “you might try [listening to bass-heavy music] in certain situations where you want to be empowered.”
The study, which was just published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, was based on a series of experiments conducted as participants listened to a “high power” playlist—containing Queen’s “We Will Rock You,” 2 Unlimited’s “Get Ready for This” and 50 Cent’s “In Da Club”—and a “low-power” playlist featuring songs similar in style but with less bass (Fatboy Slim’s “Because We Can,” Baha Men’s “Who Let the Dogs Out,” and Notorious BIG’s “Big Poppa”).
It turned out that those listening to the “high-power” playlist were much more focused on power and control. In a word-completion exercise, they came up with more power-related words (e.g. when presented with “p–er,” they tended to write “power” instead of “paper,” as the other group did).They also volunteered to go first in a debate twice as often as those who’d been tuned into the “low-power” mix (35% vs. 20%). In an experiment offering participants $5 for correctly predicting the outcome of a die roll, they were more likely to hog the die, instead of letting someone else do it, which the researchers took to indicate their “illusion of control.” They also messed up less often than the low-power crew in a categorization task that measured abstract thinking.
Bass was the critical factor, the researchers discovered. To figure this out, they conducted power-gauging experiments that stripped out the bassline from the high-power songs and, in another, conducted the word-completion test after playing bass-heavy and bass-light instrumental music for different study groups. Throughout the experiments, the researchers controlled for the influence of positive emotions—that “auditory cheesecake” thing—as well as lyrics.
So that’s the science. But what about how to use it?
Rucker suggests it could be useful prep before important client meetings, job interviews, negotiations or critical meetings with your boss.
“One thing we know from prior research is that people who feel powerful tend to make the first offer in negotiations. Essentially, power is a propensity to act, to take charge of the situation,” explains Rucker, who notes that retailers, managers and advertisers should probably also take note of what their music choices are doing to their target customers’ brains.