We tend to think of ethics as a matter of character. You do or do not do bad things because of the type of person you are. But science actually shows that circumstances and surroundings (even quite trivial details of our surroundings) can have an outsize impact on the choices we make.
That's handy for leaders to know if they want to nudge their people to do the right thing, but it's also a revelation for individuals. The world does not always make it easy to maintain a loving and generous attitude towards others. Most of us would gladly accept a helping hand when it comes to becoming a kinder, better person. And according to science, music offers just that.
We all know that music can affect our mood -- pumping us up before a big event, helping us get in the productivity zone, or providing a soothing soundtrack to our lowest moments - but a stack of recent studies also shows music can affect us on an even deeper level, making us more generous and empathetic, and less biased, reports Summer Allen in Greater Good Magazine.
1. Uplifting anthems make people nicer.
From Michael Jackson's "Heal the World" to the Black Eyed Peas' "Where Is the Love?", we all love to belt out uplifting anthems about building a better world, but one Austrian study found these feel-good tunes actually put people in a "prosocial" frame of mind, influencing their behavior for the better.
Study subjects who had recently listened to this type of music were more likely to come up with positive word associations, give money to charity, and help out when a researcher pretended to accidentally drop their belongings. "When you tell someone to heal the world through song lyrics it appears as if they're actually more likely to try," Allen concludes.
2. Lyrics can bust your biases.
Happy tunes don't just make you nicer, they can also make you more open to people very different than you, science suggests.
One German study, for instance, showed that participants who had listened to music with prosocial lyrics (such as Bruno Mars's "Count on Me" or Aretha Franklin classic "Respect") were equally likely to help students with German and Turkish-sounding last names (there is a large population of Turks living in Germany). Those who listened to more neutral songs (like Mars's "The Lazy Song") showed a preference for those with German names. In other studies, listening to prosocial songs were linked with more positive attitudes and behavior towards minorities.
While Allen cautions that it's not at all clear these effects are lasting, it's still interesting to know that simply turning on a positive tune can make you more broad minded - at least for awhile.
3. Moving to the beat makes people more cooperative.
"It's not just listening to music that can change our behavior for the better-moving to music helps, too," Allen also notes, citing a variety of studies of both adults and children that show moving to the beat (or even sometimes making music together) brings people together and helps them cooperate.
Why is that? It appears something about seeing people move in unison brings out the best in us. When researchers messed with the music so that dancers were out of sync with each other, no such positive effects were observed.
"Could this mean that moving to the beat could help you find a new friend at a party?" Allen asks. "Further research is needed." (Though there is already some evidence that joining your local chorus might actually be one of the best ways to make new friends.)
Is music the magic band-aid that can heal our messed up world? Our problems are obviously too big for such simple solutions. But it's still nice to know that, when you need to boost your faith in humanity and give yourself courage to be your best self in a sometimes dark world, an uplifting tune might just be the pick-me-up you need.