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'Disturbing' music may influence us to take fewer financial risks, Israeli researchers find

Want to make safer investments? Pay attention to the music playing in the background.

Photo credit: Theo Wargo / Getty Images for Firefly
  • A recent study examined the different ways fast/arousing and slow/calming music affects the ways people make financial decisions.
  • The results show that people made safer investments while listening to fast/arousing music, a finding that might be explained by the fact that people tend to be more risk averse when their working memory becomes overloaded.
  • Although everyone experiences music differently, it's worth keeping in mind that subtle situational factors can influence the ways we make important decisions.

Listening to music can change the way you engage with everyday activities. Some research shows, for instance, that people drive faster and break more traffic laws while listening to fast, exciting music. Other studies suggest that listening to fast, loud classical music can reduce reading comprehension, while relaxing music often leads to better scores on intelligence tests.

But can background music affect how you make financial decisions? If so, which type of music do you think would lead you to make safer investments: upbeat electronic or slower, relaxing music?

A recent study explored these questions by examining how people invested fake coins while listening to low-tempo music, high-tempo music or no music at all. The results of the study, published in the preprint journal SSRN on January 30, show that:

  • People made safer investments while listening to fast-tempo, arousing music.
  • People made safer investments while listening to music they perceived as disturbing, as opposed to helpful.

For the study, researchers asked 63 participants to listen to a suite of instrumental songs from various genres, and to rate how calming or arousing they considered each genre and song. After tallying the responses, the researchers chose the two pieces of music that participants rated most calming or arousing: a Deadmau5 mix of electronic music, and a relaxation mix from a new-age musician named Karunesh.

The participants were split into two groups — each of which listened to either the Deadmau5 mix or the Karunesh mix — and asked to complete two financial investment scenarios. The first scenario was a lottery in which participants could choose to invest in a risk-free asset with a guaranteed return or a high-risk, high-reward asset. In the second scenario, participants had to choose how they'd diversify their funds between three assets, each of which offered a 50-50 chance of getting one of two rates of return:

  • Security A: [8 percent, 12 percent]
  • Security B: [4 percent, 24 percent]
  • Security C: [5 percent, 5 percent]

In both scenarios, people who listened to the fast-tempo Deadmau5 mix made safer financial decisions. Interestingly, people also made safer investments when they subjectively felt that the music "disturbed" them, as opposed to helped them.

Why? The researchers suggested this might be explained, in part, by past findings showing that fast-tempo music can overload our working memory, which has been shown to make us less likely to take risks.

Still, the researchers note their study was limited by several factors, including the fact that it was conducted in a group setting and participants weren't allowed to select their own background music. What's more, it's worth noting that past studies have found music tempo to have "no effect on risky gambling or amount of money gambled in virtual roulette," though the researchers suggest the present study examines different processes.

Of course, everyone perceives music differently and subjectively, and what may "disturb" one person might have entirely different effects on someone else. With that in mind, the new study doesn't necessarily suggest you should put on Deadmau5 when rearranging your stock portfolio, but rather that it's a good idea to be aware of how subtle factors like background music can have surprisingly profound effects on the way we make everyday decisions.

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