A prime spot on my list of things that are deceitfully simple is held by the fact that we think with our brains. In the memorable words of George Lakoff from his marvelous book Don’t Think of an Elephant, “[A]ll thought is physical. Thought is carried out by neural circuits in the brain.” There is so much value and so many implications that stem from this, that it you can probably fill a whole room with books on the subject. One immediate consequence is this: in your brain things are related to each other in subtle ways we don’t necessarily recognize. Two recently published articles supply prime examples of this.

In the first one the authors were looking to understand how the loudness of music and background noise in restaurants impacts the food choices we make. As it turns out, we make healthier choices when we are in a low-volume music environment; interestingly, this remains true not only compared to when there’s high-volume music, but also to when there’s no music at all. In one of the studies they did, they observed the sales of food items at a cafĂ© in which they varied the loudness of music. In the high-volume condition, 32% of the items sold were healthy. Importantly, the share of healthier choices increased by more than 10% pts with low-volume ambient music. In another of the studies they split the participants in three groups and asked them to listen to music at different volume. The results: healthy food choices increase by 50% in the with low-volume music compared to high-volume one.

What is going on here? In a nutshell, enhanced relaxation. The more detailed explanation goes like this: “Research shows that higher levels of excitement (and stress) tend to enhance preference for high energy and high fat foods (Oliver et al. 2000) as well as for unhealthy snack foods (Oliver and Wardle 1999). Moreover, when emotionally charged or upset, internal restraints and self-control break down, leading to greater consumption of unhealthy foods (Baumeister 2002). Not surprisingly, chronic dieters and restrained eaters are especially sensitive to the effects of stress (Zellner et al. 2006). Excitement/stress lead individuals to choose unhealthy foods mainly because sweet and fatty foods help reduce high levels of excitement and stress (Gibson 2006).” In contrast, low-volume music puts us in a relaxed state, in which it is easier for us to make the healthier choice of food.

Perhaps even more intriguingly, another study reports that listening to higher-pitched music can increase healthier food choices. What is really amazing is why is this effect happening – read on.

Photo by Spencer Imbrock on Unsplash

First, the authors set to discover whether higher-pitched music promotes healthier choice. In one of the studies they opened and operated a pop up cookie store for 5 days, selling two types of cookies and playing music of different pitch. When the music was low-pitched, 10% of the buyers got the oatmeal (healthy) cookie. With the high-pitch music, drumroll around here, nearly 50% bought the healthy one! We get a close to 5 times increase in the share of people who make a healthy choice just because the music is no longer low-pitch but a high-pitch one. Then, in a lab experiment, they confirmed this finding – the authors had people to listen to high or low pitch music and then order breakfast (an imaginary one I should say). The results are conclusive. When people listened to low pitch music they order about 680 calories; when the music pitch was high this dropped to 471 calories.

Now, the explanation for this might seem quite odd when you first read it so let’s ease our way in. Let’s first have a look at the interesting relationship between the perceptions of pitch, height, brightness, and size:

“For example, research has shown that people look up when they hear a high-pitched sound, suggesting that higher pitch is perceptually associated with spatial height. People also rate higher-pitched sounds as brighter, and they perceive the source of higher-pitched sounds as smaller than sources emitting lower-pitched sounds and also lighter. Conversely, lower-pitched sounds are perceived as arising from lower spaces and being emitted by larger sources and are associated with lowering of the gaze, visual darkness, and heaviness.”

That’s interesting enough on its own, but there is an insight with a far wider implication here. These evaluations of height, brightness, size, and pitch all “… seem to converge conceptually in activating a common, higher-order construct of morality“. Why? Because what is moral is related to “the concepts of upward, elevation, or height” and to brightness; and in case you are wondering how are small and moral related, I offer you this insight: “Similarly, people consider smaller objects scarcer (Worchel, Lee, and Adewole 1975; Yan, Sengupta, and Wyer 2014) and purer, and purity is related to morality.”

So far we got to know how higher pitch music evokes the concept of morality, making moral thoughts more easily accessible to people. This accessibility of moral thoughts in turn nudges people towards acting more morally: “Cues also remind consumers of aspects of their identity (Chartrand and Bargh 1996). Prior research has shown that morality thoughts can make moral identity salient, and salient moral identity can increase moral self-perception among consumers, reminding them that they are moral and virtuous and that being moral is an important goal for them. These moral self-perceptions could then increase moral actions, such as acting for the greater good” And guess what: “In the context of food decisions, moral choices are likely to be healthier choices”.

There you have it – higher pitch music evokes the concept of morality in our brains, which nudges us towards acting more morally, which means making healthier choices, and voila – your “healthy food choice streak” continues. It seems most appropriate to close this investigation of the effect of music on our food choices by simply saying this: everything communicates, everything impacts.

My best wishes for a great day ahead!

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