Newswise — The words to "Itsy Bitsy Spider" tell a simple story about an arachnid and a spout, but simply recalling the lines could initiate an unintentional attitude.
That's the focus of research by Kansas State University's Eduardo Alvarado, sophomore in pre-law, who is looking at the behaviors elicited from the musical lyrics of common songs.
Alvarado is working with Donald Saucier, associate professor of psychology at K-State to study the effects priming can have on behavior by looking at the positive and negative responses stimulated from music lyrics from a variety of song categories, including patriotic and Christmas songs. Priming, he said, is when someone is exposed to a certain environment and their subconscious is activated, and then they tend to act in accordance with that environment without deliberate intent. Priming can manipulate behavior; if someone witnesses violent behavior, they would likely behave more violently.
"One of the key implications is that behaviors may be malleable in the sense that many individuals have the capacity for similar reactions in social situations," Saucier said. "Relatively small-scale primes may activate certain reactions, and these may be pro-social or anti-social depending on the context."
Alvarado said the researchers wanted to see if certain musical lyrics activated a pro-social response, which is a positive feeling like empathy, or an anti-social response, which is a negative feeling like aggression. Study participants had to complete a survey and do a lyrics exercise. For the lyrics exercise, participants had to fill in missing lyrics for different songs.
The songs involved in the study were patriotic songs, such as "The Star-Spangled Banner"; secular Christmas songs, such as "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer"; religious Christmas songs, such as "O Holy Night"; and neutral songs, such as "Itsy Bitsy Spider."
Participants filled out a survey that asked questions about their religion and their attitudes toward other cultures and diversity. Half of the participants were asked to complete the survey before the lyric exercise, and the other half completed the survey after the exercise.
Alvarado said the researchers assume people act similarly to primes, and they looked overall at the surveys to see if there was a change in the responses before and after completing the lyrics exercise. They wanted to see if the songs created a pro-social or an anti-social response. He said the preliminary findings showed that the patriotic songs had a negative effect on the participants, as shown through their responses to the survey's questions about other cultures and diversity. The patriotic songs made the participants close-minded and prejudiced.
"Once they were in a patriotic point of view, they were less empathetic," Alvarado said. "They didn't put themselves in other people's perspective."
Though songs like "Itsy Bitsy Spider" and "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" were meant to be neutral primes, the researchers found that they stimulated a pro-social response.
"You wouldn't think that those songs were going to put people in a certain mind frame, but they do activate a certain attitude," Alvarado said. "We found it made people more accepting and more empathetic. The reason for this we think is because we used to listen to these songs when we were little and they kind of activate childhood happiness."
Saucier said follow-up research will focus on using stronger and more salient primes to influence pro-social and anti-social behavior. Jessica McManus, graduate student in psychology, has been collaborating on the project.