Cognitive Music Affects Cooperation, Productivity

A plethora of past research indicates that music truly has an effect on us: It has been shown to help middle schoolers develop higher verbal IQ; to reduce heart rate, blood pressure, and anxiety in patients with cardiovascular disease; and it can even allow us to perceive the faces of strangers as happier—provided we are listening to happy music, of course.

Now, newly published research in the Journal of Organizational Behavior titled “The sound of cooperation: Musical influences on cooperative behavior”, suggests that listening to happy music has a significant and positive effect on our willingness to be cooperative, as well.

In the first of two experiments, Cornell University researchers randomly assigned 78 participants to either Happy Music condition or Unhappy Music condition. The song selection in the Happy Music condition consisted of “Yellow Submarine” by the Beatles; “Walking on Sunshine” by Katrina and the Waves; “Brown Eyed Girl” by Van Morrison; and, the theme song from “Happy Days”), and “Smokahontas” by Attack Attack! and “You Ain’t No Family” by Iwrestledabearonce for the Unhappy Music condition. The selection of songs were previously rated by 44 undergraduate students for their warmth or coldness, as well as other variables.

Participants were asked to indicate certain demographic characteristics, such as age and major. They were then given tokens and asked, while listening to either happy or unhappy music, what portion of their tokens they would allocate for their own private use, versus give to a group pool, which consisted of two other participants. They could give between 0-10 tokens, and the contributions would be multiplied by 1.5, before being divided between the three participants in the group pool. This type of experiment is known as the Voluntary Contribution Mechanism. The results of the first experiment found that participants in the Happy Music condition contributed nearly one third more than those in the Unhappy Music condition.

In order to ensure that the Unhappy Music condition did not create a negative bias, such that the finding was due to participants listening to unhappy music may have become more moody and selfish versus happy music having a positive effect on mood and cooperation, the researchers added a control condition, where no music was played. The results were the same as the first experiment, which allowed the researchers to conclude that happy music indeed had a positive effect on a person’s willingness to cooperate, and contribute to the public good.

While it is difficult to find ecological validity in the study’s conclusions, given its experimental and highly structured design, the researchers nevertheless conclude that this work adds to the growing emphasis put on the physical features of workplace environments, and “draw[s] attention to the importance of soundscapes in relation to employee behavior,” as well.


Kniffin, K. M., Yan, J., Wansink, B., & Schulze, W. D. (2016). The sound of cooperation: Musical influences on cooperative behavior. Journal of Organizational Behavio


Author: Mariana Bockarova Ph.D.

Mariana Bockarova, Ph.D., is a researcher at the University of Toronto.

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