Last summer, business journalist Jill Suttie took her niece clothes shopping in New York City. While she shopped, Suttie noticed that the music blaring on the store’s speaker system left her ears ringing and her nerves frayed. She could only stand it for about 30 minutes before she had to bolt from the store altogether.
As she reflected on the experience: “I’m sure the music was designed to appeal to the younger crowd shopping there—AKA, not me!—and certainly, music has been shown to impact buying behavior. But it made me wonder: What about the people who work there and can’t leave the store? Does the music impact them?”
Now, a cognitive study shows that background music directly influences people in ways that are highly relevant to our workspace design concepts.
The study published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior involved researchers mimicking a workplace by paying university students to participate in an economics game while listening to music. Kevin Kniffin of Cornell University gave tokens to participants (worth money at the end of the experiment) and allowed them to anonymously choose to donate some of those tokens to a pool, where they were multiplied and redistributed among the players. Since players stood to make the most money if all participants gave all of their tokens, the number of tokens donated acted as a measure of their willingness to cooperate.
During the game, the organizers randomly played either happy, rhythmic music (e.g., the pop song “I’m Walking on Sunshine“ by Katrina and the Waves) or unhappy, non-rhythmic music (e.g., the heavy metal song “Smokahontas“ by Attack Attack!) in the background.
The study clearly showed that participants who listened to happy music were more likely to cooperate, regardless of age, gender, or education than those who listened to unhappy music.
Perhaps that outcome isn’t surprising, given that happy music makes us happy and happy individuals are more cooperative. But that wasn’t quite what was going on; in a follow-up experiment, researchers determined that happy music was linked to increased cooperation whether or not it boosted participants’ moods.
Here, researchers added a control group who didn’t listen to music and measured participants’ moods before, during, and after playing the game. Results again showed that the happy-music group cooperated more than the unhappy or no-music groups. And, while a better mood was linked to greater cooperation, it couldn’t account for the differences between groups. In other words, something else about happy, rhythmic music seemed to be encouraging cooperation.
As Kniffin argues, this finding fits with previous research on music demonstrating that it can increase cooperative behavior through synchronization among listeners.
“When people are presented with a steady rhythm or beat, they are inclined to mimic that beat and, in turn, get in sync,” he says. “That translates naturally into more cooperation during decision-making.”
Though results from this study are preliminary—for example, the researchers didn’t consider the impact of participants liking, disliking, or being familiar with the songs—they do point to the fact that music could impact workers, as well as clients or shoppers. Kniffin believes this is especially relevant to employers.
“Compared with expensive off-site team-building retreats, our findings suggest that inexpensive modifications to the office soundscape can boost mood and performance,” he says.
More studies are required, though, since inadequate attention has been paid to how “atmospherics”—the background qualities of the workplace environment—influences worker performance. Some of Kniffin’s earlier research has found that even simply having workers eat together can increase job performance, yet the employee social climate is often overlooked.
If his findings on happy music hold, Kniffin believes that they may translate into changes in the workplace that could benefit employees and employers without hurting the bottom line.