a futuristic musician

Complex Priming with Music

For the next in our series on priming, I want to focus on something that I think you will find really intriguing. I was doubtful at first, but my knowledge of priming, the link between music and cognition architecture, and the mathematics underling music, gives me some pause. Granted this is just one study, so some restraint is warranted. But the results of this study can have amazing benefits for companies pumping music into different kinds of workplaces (call centers versus R&D skunkworks) and retail (grocery stores versus Apple Stores).

So here is what I discovered.

A recent study out of Europe found that short, stripped down pieces of music that have specific structural configurations can fundamentally prime how you think. Very different from priming a hamburger over a grilled cheese sandwich, this priming shifts your entire mindset.

You will have the read the full paper to see the specific musical adaptations because they are technical. But the basic effect is that some musical structures shifted participants to thinking at a higher level of construal (abstraction) and other musical structures shifted participants to lower levels.

Participants listened to musical sounds that varied in reverberation, novelty of harmonic modulation, and metrical segmentation. In line with the hypothesis, distance/abstractness cues in the sounds instigated the formation of broader categories, increased the preference for global as compared to local aspects of visual patterns, and caused participants to put more weight on aggregated than on individualized product evaluations.

Here is where it matters for HF/E. When participants were primed to think at higher levels, they groups paper towels and detergent into the same category in a procedure that looks an awful lot like the card sorts that we all use when developing information architectures. When they were primed to think at lower levels, they put them in separate categories.

Did any of you think that the music you have playing in the waiting room of your UX lab could fundamentally change the results of your IA research? I suspect not. I recommend reading the paper and seeing if you should change any of your practices.

Image credit: “Space music” by Ernst Vikne used under CC BY-SA 2.0

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