Photo credit: James Knight

There was a time when the church banned certain chords, believing them to be the work of the devil. Now research has found they might have had a point.

In her paper 'Music and compliance: Can good music make us do bad things?' researcher Dr Naomi Ziv discovered that normal people were more likely to harm others if there was positive music playing in the background.

The first test group was asked to call another of the participants to tell them they could not take part in the experiment, giving no reason other than they "didn't feel like it". The second group was asked to call a student and tell them they would not receive their study materials and gave the same reason.

When 'pleasant, familiar' music was playing, more people decided to make the call than when no music was playing.

Dr Ziv, who carried out the research at the College of Management Academic Studies in Rhison Le-Zion, Israel, said: "When you feel good you are persuaded more easily, and you don't critically analyze messages. This could have both positive and negative consequences. Previous studies on the effect of music on pro-social or anti-social behavior focused mostly on lyrics, but this study shows that this effect is not attributable to lyrics (because one of the songs used was in Spanish, and the participants didn't understand the lyrics).

"From my results, it seems that music which is positive, familiar and liked increases the chances of complying with a request, even if compliance means harming someone else."

These days it is commonly recognised that music can make you feel good about doing things, it is a common staple of advertising, but bypassing a person's moral code is another thing entirely. It suggests that humans are fickle and guided by a moral compass that is rather fluid.

Ziv hopes that her paper will make people more aware of this influence so that we may be able to resist it. 

The research follows on from Ziv's previous study in which a fictional radio ad was set up for plagiarizing college papers. When positive music was playing, people were much more likely to accept the unethical message or not even notice the ethical question.

"In this [new] study", says Ziv, "I wanted to extend this finding, and see if positive music could lead people to agree to actually to do something which would entail harm to a third person. It did."

But how did Ziv know the people were good in the first place? Perhaps they were already morally corrupt? 

"I did not assess that people were good. I don't imagine they were particularly good or bad, just normal people. In any case, since they were randomly assigned to the different experimental groups, any individual differences should be balanced."