When to switch on background music

Some things of our daily lives have become so common, we hardly notice them anymore. Background music is one such thing. Whether you are in a supermarket, a gym or a molecular biology laboratory, you can constantly hear it. More than that, even in quiet environments like the office or the library people get out their mp3-players and play background music. Is this a form of boosting one’s productivity or are people enjoying music at the cost of getting things done? Research on the effect of background music can give an answer.

A German research team led by Juliane Kämpfe did a meta-analysis of nearly 100 studies on this topic. It turns out that certain tasks benefit from background music. They are noticeably mindless tasks: mundane behaviours like eating or driving as well as sports. Below you can hear how Arnold Schwarzenegger uses this finding to great effect.



Music also has a positive effect on mood regulation like controlling your nervousness before a job interview. (I have discussed similar stuff before when looking into why people willingly listen to sad music.)
However, music can also have a detrimental effect. It can draw your attention away from the things you should be focussing on. As a result a negative influence tends to be seen in situations which require concentration: memorising and text understanding. In other words: don’t play it in a university library as these students did.



So far, so unsurprising. However, one positive effect stands out from the picture I painted above. The German meta-analysis mentions a curious, positive effect of music on simple math tests. This is in line with a recent study by Avila and colleagues who found a positive effect of music on logical reasoning. Could it be that the negative effect of background music on concentration tasks is found because these tasks are nearly always language based? Music and language have been claimed to share a lot of mental resources. This special link between the two modalities could perhaps explain the negative effect. It is too early to tell, but there may be a set of intellectual tasks which benefit from music: the abstract, mathematical or logical ones.
The conclusion is clear. If you want to get things done, choose carefully whether music will aid you or hold you back. Think Arnie or Gangnam Style.

Avila, C., Furnham, A., & McClelland, A. (2012). The influence of distracting familiar vocal music on cognitive performance of introverts and extraverts Psychology of Music, 40 (1), 84-93 DOI: 10.1177/0305735611422672

Kampfe, J., Sedlmeier, P., & Renkewitz, F. (2011). The impact of background music on adult listeners: A meta-analysis Psychology of Music, 39 (4), 424-448 DOI: 10.1177/0305735610376261

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Obama should pray for sun – Psycho-meteorological effects on government approval

Romney should pray for rain because rain improves a conservative’s chances of getting elected. Having covered this ‘Republican rain advantage’ in my last post, I will turn to a second reason why the presidential candidates should monitor the election day weather in this post. It turns out that the weather influences how well the government is perceived. Could this be exploited by the candidates?

George Bush; Ariel Sharon; Mahmud Abba; Red Sea Summit

Bush finding approval under the sun.

The weather has got a curious effect on the government’s approval ratings. Alex Cohen looked at Bush’s approval ratings of the year 2005. He found that they were significantly better when the sun was out at the respondent’s location compared to ambiguous weather. Note that this is opposite to the ‘Republican rain advantage’ covered in the last post suggesting that a different explanation needs to be found to explain this one.
The easiest explanation would be this: it is a simple coincidence. However, German researchers Michael Mutz and Sylvia Kämpfer did a similar analysis for German polling data gathered in 2008. Just like Cohen they found sunshine to increase government satisfaction. Going beyond this ‘incumbent sunshine advantage’, they found that a rainy day actually reduced government satisfaction. It should be noted that in 2008 Germany was ruled by a so called grand coalition formed by the two main centre-right and centre-left parties. Therefore, the Republican rain advantage cannot account for this effect either. So, given a replication in a different year and a completely different democratic system, there must be a reason for this effect other than coincidence.
But is it worth our time to dwell on this issue? Yes it is. Compared to what sort of things political candidates – and the media – usually focus on, the weather effect is substantial. In Germany it was found to be stronger than the effect of gender and appeared comparable to the effect of education. In the US study it was, depending on season, stronger than the effect of age, unemployment or income. In other words, if it is worth worrying about ‘the female vote’ or the ‘pensioner vote’ it is also worth looking at the weather effect.
Brack Obama; Joe Biden; White House; Sun; Golf

Obama during a time of high approval.

The reason given for this ‘incumbent sun advantage’ mirror to some degree what I suggested to be the reason for the ‘Republican rain advantage’. The effect of weather on mood is the key link. By and large, sunshine improves mood. Whether it does so directly by increasing the availability of the neurotransmitter serotonin or indirectly by facilitating outdoor events with friends does not matter. Once the weather has changed your mood there are three ways it can cloud your judgement. First, the information we take in tends to conform to our mood – mood-congruent attention. Second, the more a memory agrees with our mood the more likely it is to be remembered – mood-congruent memory. Third, when faced with complex, vague or unimportant decisions people tend to be guided by their gut feeling, i.e. they use their mood as explicit information for their judgement.
In sum, when you are asked to evaluate the government and the sun is shining, you are more likely to attend to something good, remember something good and have your assessment clouded by your good gut feeling. No wonder you tend to evaluate the government as better even though it is not responsible for the weather.
However, this effect has no obvious application for the candidates. Obama appears to benefit from the political climate as much as from the actual weather. Romney, though, will have to pray for rain – or hope that the good feelings not just lead to a better assessment of the incumbent but also of the challenger.


Cohen, A. (2011). The photosynthetic President: Converting sunshine into popularity The Social Science Journal, 48 (2), 295-304 DOI: 10.1016/j.soscij.2010.11.007

Mutz, M., & Kämpfer, S. (2011). …und nun zum Wetter: Beeinflusst die Wetterlage die Einschätzung von politischen und wirtschaftlichen Sachverhalten? Zeitschrift für Soziologie, 40 (4), 208-226


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Romney should pray for rain – psycho-meteorological effects on GOP vote share



1) By White House photo by Eric Draper [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

2) By Pete Souza for The Official White House Photostream (P042409PS-0122) via Wikimedia Commons


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Romney should pray for rain – psycho-meteorological effects on GOP vote share

I would not be surprised if Mitt Romney was going through the weather forecast for November 6th, the date of the next US presidential election. As the Republican candidate, he will know that his chances of being elected are higher if people are faced with pouring rain upon leaving for the ballot box. Research supports this opinion but the underlying reasons could give the Obama campaign a strategy to undo this Republican rain advantage.

Mitt Romney; GOP; Republican; President; Candidate

Must have been raining outside. Good for him.

The media love covering election day weather under the assumption that it somehow matters for the political outcome. Is that true? Research by Brad Gomez and colleagues indeed supports this notion. They looked at all US presidential elections since 1948 and found that Republican candidates tended to benefit from rain and snow. In 1960 this effect may have helped Kennedy to win the election due to dry weather. Moreover, in 2000 it may have affected the infamous Florida vote in Bush’s favour due to higher than usual rain in many counties.
This effect is not spurious. It has recently been replicated in a completely different electoral system: the Netherlands. Rob Eisinga and colleagues have shown that various left parties benefit from dry election days and that various right or liberal parties benefit from pouring rain. The conservative advantage on rainy days seems to be real.

 The rationality in weather effects

The usual reason given for this bizarre effect is a rational one. The story goes a bit like this. Bad weather increases the cost – i.e. effort or reluctance – of going to the polling booth. Such cost-considerations may not affect conservative voters that much because they are more politically committed, more used to working outdoors (farming) or have got a higher chance of owning a car. The typical left voter, on the other hand, could be imagined as being urban, without car, possibly old and, thus, unwilling to wait for the bus in the rain in order to get to the polling station.
Does this story work? Is the Republican rain advantage really due to people behaving like rational actors? The data don’t really support this story. Consider that every inch of rain above normal reduces the voter turn-out by only 0.9% whereas it changes the election outcome by 2.5%. Simple Democratic voter abstention cannot account for the full effect. Many voters must be influenced by the weather in terms of their actual voting decision – rather than just whether to vote or not.

 The irrationality in weather effects

Obama in New Hampshire; president; Barack Obama; election

Obama with help from above.

Given that the rational actor model fails a more sophisticated psychological theory is needed. The relation between mood and helping behaviour may be the key link between the weather and election outcomes. I don’t think it is a stretch to say that the most persistent difference between right and left wing parties is captured in a ‘each for his own’ vs ‘help where help is needed’ dichotomy. Whether it comes to civil rights, health care or the tax system, right wing parties tend to favour individual responsibility and opportunity over collective responsibility and protection. The effect of the weather on voting decisions may be related to changing a feeling of responsibility for one another.
There is some suggestive evidence for this proposal. Psychological studies carried out by Matthew Keller and colleagues have shown that mood is positively influenced by going out and experiencing good weather (at least in the spring). Next, good mood is associated with more helping behaviour – clearly established in a review by Carlson and colleagues. So, a causal chain linking the weather to voting could look like this: weather –> mood –> helping.
One should not trust such causal chains too much without a direct test of the first cause affecting the last effect. Michael Cunningham has provided just that. He looked at helping behaviour through people’s readiness to participate in a lengthy questionnaire. People approached outside were more likely to stop to hear the experimenter’s request on a sunny day. Once stopped they were ready to answer more questions if the sun was out. Clearly, randomly chosen members of the public are more ready to help during good weather – as predicted by the causal chain ‘weather –> mood –> helping’. By changing voters’ readiness to provide concrete help the weather may also influence how people think the government should treat its citizens – whether to leave them alone or whether to assist them.

 What can Obama do?

Given the role of the ‘mood –> helping’ effect in explaining the ‘weather –> vote’ effect, what strategy should the Obama administration adopt to counter-act the Republican rain advantage? Following this model, I suggest that they should emphasize health care and minority/women rights if key states are predicted to show good weather. Military successes like the bin Laden raid in Pakistan should be focussed on with bad weather. Mitt Romney, on the other hand, should catch up in the polls within the next few weeks and then pray for rain.

Carlson M, Charlin V, & Miller N (1988). Positive mood and helping behavior: a test of six hypotheses. Journal of personality and social psychology, 55 (2), 211-29 PMID: 3050025

Cunningham, M. (1979). Weather, mood, and helping behavior: Quasi experiments with the sunshine samaritan. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37 (11), 1947-1956 DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.37.11.1947

Keller MC, Fredrickson BL, Ybarra O, Côté S, Johnson K, Mikels J, Conway A, & Wager T (2005). A warm heart and a clear head. The contingent effects of weather on mood and cognition. Psychological science, 16 (9), 724-31 PMID: 16137259

Eisinga R, Te Grotenhuis M, & Pelzer B (2012). Weather conditions and political party vote share in Dutch national parliament elections, 1971-2010. International journal of biometeorology, 56 (6), 1161-5 PMID: 22065127

Gomez, B., Hansford, T., & Krause, G. (2007). The Republicans Should Pray for Rain: Weather, Turnout, and Voting in U.S. Presidential Elections The Journal of Politics, 69 (03), 649-663 DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2508.2007.00565.x
ResearchBlogging.orgIf you liked this post, you may also like its sister post:

Obama should pray for sun – Psycho-meteorological effects on approval ratings



1) By Brian Rawson-Ketchum via Wikimedia Commons

2) By Fogster (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons


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