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Should you listen to music while doing intellectual work? It depends on the music, the task, and your personality

How prone you are to boredom plays an unexpected role.

Given how many of us listen to music while studying or doing other cerebral work, you'd think psychology would have a set of clear answers as to whether the practice is likely to help or hinder performance. In fact, the research literature is rather a mess (not that that has deterred some enterprising individuals from making bold claims).


There's the largely discredited "Mozart Effect" – the idea that listening to classical music can boost subsequent IQ, except that when first documented in the 90s the effect was on spatial reasoning specifically, not general IQ. Also, since then the finding has not replicated, or it has proven weak and is probably explained as a simple effect of music on mood or arousal on performance. And anyway, that's about listening to music and then doing mental tasks, rather than both simultaneously. Other research on listening to music while we do mental work has suggested it can be distracting (known as the "irrelevant sound effect"), especially if we're doing mental arithmetic or anything that involves holding information in the correct order in short-term memory.

Now, in the hope of injecting more clarity and realism into the literature, Manuel Gonzalez and John Aiello have tested the common-sense idea that the effects of background music on mental task performance will depend on three things: the nature of the music, the nature of the task, and the personality of the person. "We hope that our findings encourage researchers to adopt a more holistic, interactionist approach to investigate the effects of music (and more broadly, distractions) on task performance," they write in their new paper in Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied.

The researchers recruited 142 undergrads (75 per cent were women) and asked them to complete two mental tasks. The simpler task involved finding and crossing out all of the letter As in a sample of text. The more complex task involved studying lists of word pairs and then trying to recall the pairs when presented with just one word from each pair.

Each task was performed while listening to one of two versions of a piece of elevator-style instrumental music – composed for the research – or no music. One version of the music was more complex than the other, featuring additional bass and drum tracks (both versions are available via the Open Science Framework). Also, depending on the precise experimental condition, the music was either quiet or louder (62 or 78 decibels). The participants also completed part of the "boredom proneness scale" to establish whether they were the kind of person who likes plenty of external stimulation or not (as measured by their agreement with statements like "it takes a lot of change and variety to keep me really happy").

Participants' performance was explained by an interaction between the task, the music, and their preference for external stimulation. When performing the simpler task, participants not prone to boredom did better while listening to complex music than simple music or no music, whereas boredom prone participants showed the opposite pattern, performing better with no music at all or simple music. In terms of volume, the low boredom prone were better with quiet complex music, whereas the boredom prone did better with louder complex music.

The researchers' explanation is that for low boredom people who aren't so keen on external stimulation, the quieter, more complex music provided just enough distraction to stop them from mind wandering from the simple task, thus boosting their task focus and performance. In contrast, the more boredom prone participants who like external stimulation tuned in too much to the complex music and were overly distracted by it, thus performing worse than when working in silence.

For the more complex task, the precise nature of the music (its complexity and volume) made no difference to results. But people low in boredom proneness benefited from having any kind of music in the background (the researchers aren't sure why, but perhaps there were mood or arousal-based benefits not measured in this study), whereas once again the boredom prone folk with a preference for external stimulation again actually performed better with no music.

Though these findings may seem counterintuitive, the researchers' explanation is that, for boredom prone people, the complex task provided adequate stimulation and background music interfered with this productive engagement. Supporting this interpretation, the more boredom prone participants outperformed their less boredom prone peers at the task in the no-music condition (and at an earlier, baseline cognitive test), suggesting they engaged better with the tasks (the researchers additionally noted that this result challenges the way that boredom as an emotion is usually seen as a bad thing, suggesting "it can predict constructive outcomes, such as better complex task performance").

If you consider yourself as prone to boredom and craving of external stimulation, a tentative implication of these findings – bearing in mind they are preliminary – is that you might be better off studying or do other cerebral work without music in the background, at least not music that is too complex. On the other hand, if you are less craving of stimulation, then paradoxically some background music could boost your performance. As the researchers stated: "we offer evidence against the commonly held belief that distractions like music will always harm task performance." They added, "our findings suggest that the relationship between music and task performance is not 'one-size-fits-all'. In other words, music does not appear to impair or benefit performance equally for everyone."

Part of the problem with interpreting the results is in the ambiguity of the aspect of boredom proneness that the researchers looked at – "preference for external stimulation". Past research has generally considered boredom proneness to be associated with less desirable aspects of personality, such as having less self-control and being more impetuous, and this could fit with the idea that boredom prone participants in this research were more distracted by background music. However, as mentioned, the participants scoring higher on "preference for external stimulation" generally performed better at the tasks, thus raising questions about what aspect of personality and/or mental aptitude was really being tapped by this measure. It doesn't help matters that there was no direct measure of attentional control and focus in the study. (In terms of other relevant personality traits, prior research has found that introverts are more distracted than extraverts by highly arousing music).

Other obvious limitations include the question of how much the featured tasks resemble real-life challenges, and the fact that people often listen to music they know and like rather than unfamiliar, instrumental music.

Still, it's laudable that the current research attempted to consider how various factors interact in explaining the effect of music on mental performance. Gonzalez and John Aiello concluded, "we hope our research will serve as a starting point for more systematic investigation of music."

More than meets the ear: Investigating how music affects cognitive task performance

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

This article was originally published on BPS Research Digest. Read the original article.

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Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

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  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

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  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
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"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

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  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

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