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Leadership Today - Practical Tips For Leaders

Aug 26, 2022


Background music impacts the way we work in surprising ways.



Welcome to episode 152 of the Leadership Today podcast where each week we bring research to life in your leadership. This week we look at the impact of background music upon the way we work.

I remember an office I used to work in that had a radio. I know - I’m showing my age a bit here, but the modern equivalent might be putting on some headphones. At the start of the day someone would turn the radio on to a fairly bland radio station. The radio wasn’t too loud, but it was a constant presence in the background. There was always some mix of music or conversation. 

I didn’t mind the radio much. For me it made the office space feel less sterile and more active. Others weren’t so keen on the constant music. But what impact did that background music have on our work performance? I would have assumed very little, but research has demonstrated that background music can indeed impact the way we work.

Researchers had participants complete a range of tasks with three different conditions - in silence, with background music at a relatively slow tempo, and with the same music at a faster tempo. The researchers found that background music resulted in people working faster but less accurately. And that effect was independent of the tempo of the music. The researchers believe the background music made people less cautious. This allowed people to work faster, but also produced more errors.

Brain processing is a limited resource. It appears that processing music can reduce the resources available for decision making. To compensate, our brain throws some of our usual caution to the wind.

The researchers did consider that perhaps it just wasn’t the right music for the participants. Maybe when you have that brilliant track you love playing it feels like you can work more effectively. What we want to aim for is music that improves our mood, but that doesn’t distract us. Familiar music could be fine. But if you’re regularly listening to new music while working, you might want to try mixing things up a bit. It could be impacting you in ways you don’t expect.

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Perez Santangelo, A., Ludwig, C. J. H., Navajas, J., Sigman, M., & Leone, M. J. (2022). Background music changes the policy of human decision-making: Evidence from experimental and drift-diffusion model-based approaches on different decision tasks. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Advance online publication.