Like buses, you don’t get a blog for weeks and then two come at once. I saw today this headline: Does listening to rock make you racist? Seven minutes of Bruce Spri… in the daily mail online. They also included a helpful picture of Scott Weiland wearing a pseudo-nazi outfit (well, it was a black shirt, with a bit of a poor choice of peaked cap) to ‘reflect the association between rock and white people’. ‘The association between rock and white people’, bugger me, it’s as though bad brains, living colour, 24-7 spyz, Animals as Leaders, bodycount (shall I go on?) or those collaborations between public enemy and anthrax had never happened. In the world of the Daily Mail, rock makes you a racist, simple as. Now they’ve got the science to back it up. Mothers and fathers everywhere protect your children from this evil and rancid puff of Satan’s anal smoke that pervades society in the form of ‘rock music’, it will infect their brains and make them racists. I’d have thought this would be a good thing as far as the Daily Mail are concerned given this, and this, and this, and, well, every other article they publish.
Anyway, enough about the Daily Mail. The point is, this piece of research has been seized on by many a website, including theNME who have for years been trying to find a good reason to justify looking down their self-important noses at rock and heavy metal. Now they have one: it makes us all racist. Or does it?
It’s based on Helen LaMarre’s doctoral thesis. I don’t want to get into bashing this study because I suspect like most scientists who find their studies spreading like wildfire across the internet, they at no point said that listening to Bruce Springsteen makes you a racist. It’s easy to bash any study – nothing is perfect. My issue here is with the way the study is presented by the media.
Essentially, in this study they took 148 undergrads (all Caucasian otherwise it doesn’t really make sense), and sat them in a waiting room for 7 minutes during which one of three types of music was played:
  • Mainstream rock: The White Stripes, Bon Jovi, Bruce Springsteen, Van Morrison, Foo Fighters (2 songs), Radiohead
  • Radical white power rock (i.e. racist dickhead rock): Prussian Blue (2 songs), Screwdriver, Bound for Glory, Max Resist (2 songs)
  • Top 40 Pop: Justin Timberlake (3 songs), Fergie and Akon (2 songs), Fergie (withour Akon), Gwen Stefani (with Akon, who gets about a bit), Gwen Stefani (2 songs), Rihanna.
At the end of this they were asked to allocate $500,000, as percentage chunks, to four student groups based on descriptions of those groups. The descriptions depicted White American, African American, Arab American and Latino American student groups. So, for example, if you wanted to make equal allocations, then you would respond 25%, 25%, s5%, 25%. They found that when listening to pop music the allocations were fairly even (means of 24.02, 25.49, 24.02, 24.76), after rock music they allocated more to the white American student group (M = 35) compared to all of the others (all Ms around 21). After listening to right wing music, allocations were higher to White American students (M = 39.47) than to African (M = 16.09), Arab (M = 14.58) and Latina (M = 25.58) students.
Statistically speaking these are pretty decent sized effects (huge in some cases). However, a few things to consider in making your own mind up about whether this shows that 7 minutes of Bruce Springsteen makes you a racist:
  1. Is a control group of pop music appropriate? A no music control group (just being in the waiting room) would give you a better baseline of people’s natural responses. The pop music (I’m not really familiar with it, but judging by song titles) was quite love oriented, so it’s possible that hearing songs about love etc. puts you in a good mood, and in a good mood you make more balanced allocations of the funds. I don’t know this to be true, it’s a hypothesis. However, I think a no music control group is a better baseline than any other form of music, because you can then assess whether a particular genre changes things compared to nothing at all. We could then see whether rock music affects allocations negatively, or pop music affects them positively. As it stands we just know the genres differ, but we don’t know whether pop makes you fairer or rock makes you unfair, or both.
  2. Is it the music that matters? This kind of research is very difficult to do because you’re not just manipulating the genre of music, you’re manipulating all sorts of other confounds that systematically vary with your independent variable. One example in this study is (arguably) aggression (rock is arguably more aggressive than pop, right wing rock is undoubtedly more aggressive than lots of other things). So here, you have a pattern of the rockier the music, the more money was allocated to White American students, but is it just because of a mood induction? Is it that the more of a negative mood you’re in, the more biased you are to the same race? (It would be an interesting finding in itself that people show a same race bias when they’re in a bad mood, but it would undermine the conclusion that rock music per se causes a same-race bias because there are lots of things that might put you in a bad mood other than rock music. Reading the daily mail, for example.) The problem here is that rock wasn’t pitted against, say hardcore hip hop, or better still perhaps some minor threat or fugazi who are very aggressive but promote very liberal themes in their lyrics. No measures of mood were taken so we don’t know whether there was a mood effect at all, and we certainly don’t know whether it’s the genre that matters, the lyrics, or the tone of the music. As I said, it’s really hard to match all of the variables that you might want to match, but the press portray the research in very simplistic terms and it’s not that’s simple.
  3. What about individual differences? When asked what music the people listened to the most common response was pop (the details of this questionnaire are sketchy so I’m not entirely sure what question was asked). So, in effect you’ve got a bunch of people who probably don’t listen to rock much, who are played rock in a waiting room. Some other people were played music that they ‘prefer’ (pop) and they are subsequently fair minded and nice than those played less familiar and less preferred music (rock). You’d really need some kind of measure of people’s preference and then look for an interaction between genre and preference. Maybe it’s simply that when you’re subjected to music that you don’t particularly like you show a same-race bias? This goes back to the mood effects problem. Again, what’s needed here is a bit more research that delves into how you’re affected by familiarity of the music, whether it’s music you actually like: by having a wider range of genres (not just rock and pop), different groups of people with different tastes (and from different racial backgrounds) we might be able to pick apart some of these potential confounds.
  4. The money allocation task: arguably the money allocation task magnifies the effect. You have 100% to allocate over 4 boxes. You have to allocate exactly 100%. So, let’s imagine you’re fair minded and allocate across the boxes as 25%, 25%, 25%, 25%. Job done. Let’s say you change you’re mind and decide that you want to give box 1 an extra percent: 26%, 25%, 25%, 25%. You’ve now allocated 101% and that’s not allowed. So, you’d have to remove a 1% from another box to complete the task as requested. So perhaps you decide box 2 is your least favourite so you now allocate: 26%, 24%, 25%, 25%. You have allocated 100% and you have completed the task as requested. My point is that a small preference for box 1 (you wanted to add 1%) gets doubled because to do this you have to subtract some from one or more of the other boxes: a 1% difference between box 1 and 2 is doubled to a 2% difference. I’m not saying that this means that the results are nonsense or anything like that, but I am saying that it has probably magnified the effects reported because a slight preference for one group will be magnified simply because to increase funds to that group you have to take them away from another.
These are just a few points off the top of my head. Of course, I’m a huge rock and metal fan and I have my own biases: years of listening to slayer have not made me a Satanist anymore than years of listening to public enemy made me anti-white (although it did give me an enlightening new perspective on many things). I’m prepared to be proved wrong, but on the basis of this study I’m not concerned that I’ll wake up tomorrow as a raving racist. So, like I said this blog is more about how the press portray what is actually a very complex research question in a completely idiotic way. I always like reading studies about music preferences and this, like many I have read, pose interesting questions about the effect that music has on us and how we study it. There are lots of methodological issues that arise in trying to control the appropriate confounds if you’re trying to make statements about genres of music. There are also lots of interesting questions about what aspects of music effect people (so digging below the rather arbitrary classifications of rock, pop, rap or indie) and how these characteristics interact with the personality types of people that listen to them to affect cognition and emotion.
Right, I’m off to listen to some Devin Townsend, after which I’m going to start a campaign to shut down all bad coffee outlets. Ziltoid ……..