From the distinctive opening “Whooah” to the recurring funky brass riff that follows each line of lyrics, James Brown’s hit song I Got You (I Feel Good) is a recipe for happiness.

The iconic track is arguably one of the most upbeat ever made, guaranteed to get your heart racing, your head shaking and maybe even your fist pumping in time to the music. It is hard to listen to the Godfather of Soul blast out this tune and feel anything but cheerful.

Yet, it appears there may be something sinister lurking behind the catchy lyrics and energetic performance – listening to this song can make you do bad things.

"In real life, music is used to manipulate people in all kinds of ways," explains Naomi Ziv, a psychologist at the College of Management Academic Studies in Rishon Le Zion, Israel. "A lot of it can be negative," she says. "Music can make people more compliant, more aggressive and even racist."

These latest findings are a stark contrast with some long-held assumptions – including the belief that angry rap and metal by artists like Eminem and Marilyn Manson could incite violent behaviour. In the immediate aftermath of the Columbine High School, for instance, there were reports that linked Manson’s music to the two killers, although it later proved to be false.

Listening to extreme music may represent a healthy way of processing anger

In fact, psychologists at the University of Queensland in Australia would suggest that this music may, in fact, soothe our angrier urges. Genevieve Dingle and her colleagues deliberately antagonised people by asking them to talk about an event involving a friend or a colleague that made them angry before allowing them to listen to hardcore metal music. After listening to the music, the participants reported far more positive emotions than those who sat in silence.

“Listening to extreme music may represent a healthy way of processing anger for these listeners,” said Dingle.

Ziv’s research would instead suggest that “easy listening” tunes carry the most danger. In 2011, for instance, she found that music has the power to alter people’s moral judgements. She asked a group of volunteers to listen to a fictional radio advert for a website that claimed to be able to create false documents so people can receive a higher pension. Half of those who listened to the advert also heard Mozart’s Allegro from A Little Night Music playing in the background, while the other half had no music.

People who listened to chirpy background music tended to be more accepting of unethical, cheating behaviour

Similarly, a separate group were asked to listen to another advert describing how participants could cheat on a seminar paper for college using a website. Again, half of those who listened to the advert also heard James Brown’s I Got You (I Feel Good) playing in the background. In both cases, those who listened to the advert with the background music tended to be more accepting of the unethical, cheating behaviour encouraged in the adverts. In some instances the participants even reported seeing it in a positive light.

Gently callous

Another set of studies, published in the journal Psychology of Music, pushed the participants further – by asking them to be callous to another human being.

This time Ziv and her team asked them to do them a favour after completing a grammar test while listening to music in the background. Some heard James Brown's famous hit, others were played a Spanish dance hit called Suavemente by singer Elvis Crespo and a control group heard no music at all.

While the music was still playing, the researchers asked some of the participants to call a female student who needed to take part in the study to earn credits to complete her course, and tell her she could no longer participate. The researchers simply said: “I don’t feel like seeing her.” Another group were asked to tell a student who had missed the past semester due to a sickness that they couldn't have the course material she had been promised after all. 

The majority of those who did not listen to music refused the request, which is hardly surprising:  who wants to do someone else’s dirty work, especially when it is will harm another person’s chances of completing their studies? Yet Ziv found that in the first test, 65% of those who had music in the background when asked for the favour agreed to do what the researchers asked. In the second test, 82% of the group asked with music agreed.

“It was quite shocking,” says Ziv. “They were being asked to do something that involved hurting someone else and many of them said they would do it.” 

 

 Whole teams of people think about what music to play in shopping malls and adverts to set the right atmosphere

So what is going on when people listen to James Brown’s unrelentingly upbeat track? Ziv thinks the answer lies in what happens to our personality when we are happy. “There has been work in the past that has shown when you are in a good mood, you agree more and process information less rigorously. Depressed people tend to be more analytical and are persuaded less easily.

“Christmas music is a perfect example of happy music that can make people more compliant. There are whole teams of people who think about what music to play in shopping malls and adverts to set the right atmosphere.”

Certain features in the music can also play with the way our brains work. Rhythmic sounds, for example, can coordinate the behaviour and thinking of a group of people. Annett Schirmer, a neuroscientist at the University of Singapore, has found that playing a rhythm on a drum can cause brainwaves to synchronise with the beat.

Her findings may help to explain why drums play such a big role in tribal ceremonies and why armies march to the sound of a drum beat. “The rhythm entrains all individuals in a group so that their thinking and behaving becomes temporally aligned,” suggests Schirmer.

It’s still not clear how music might influence behaviour beyond the laboratory, though Ziv suspects the effects may be profound. "In the real world, I think it can go to extremes," she said.

 

It is a disturbing thought. She points to football fan violence and the role that team songs can play in that, for instance. “Music can create a feeling of group cohesion and agreement,” she says. “When people do things together they are more likely to agree with each other too. This leads to something called groupthink, where there can be a deterioration in moral judgement.”

It may also change the way you vote, she things. “Music is used in politics all the time to create enthusiasm for ideas and to cultivate agreement.”

Jason McCoy, a musicologist at the Dallas Baptist University in Texas, agrees it’s plausible, suggesting that music helps to "normalise the narrative" of otherwise immoral messages. He points to other examples in history like where the Nazis broadcast swing music on the radio to get more youngsters to tune into the propaganda messages that accompanied it. McCoy's own work has examined the role that music may have played in making the messages of hate broadcast on the radio during the Rwandan genocide of 1994 seem more acceptable.

Ziv is currently conducting research on how patriotic music and national anthems can increase racist attitudes and antagonism towards others. She is finding that listening to songs that praise the bravery of Israeli soldiers caused Israeli participants to become more hostile towards non-Israelis and Palestinians, for instance.

Clearly music is just one of many factors subtly influencing our behaviour. But they are worth considering the next time your favourite tune hits the radio. To misquote James Brown’s famous song: Just because you feel good, doesn’t mean that you can do no wrong.

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