The Unexpected Link Between Music And Food Consumption

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  1. Mahmoud Abudeif

    Mahmoud Abudeif Golden Member

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    People make poorer food choices in noisier environments and healthier dining choices in quieter ones, according to results of a recent study published in the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science.

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    This phenomenon stems from the fact that noise or music volume directly affects the physiological responses (eg, blood pressure levels and heart rate) and neurochemical changes (eg, stress levels) in our bodies.

    “Music has an effect on our physiological system,” lead study author Dipayan Biswas, PhD, professor, Marketing Department, University of South Florida Muma College of Business, Tampa, FL, told TODAY Food. “You are more likely to start dancing with loud music. [A] higher excitement level translates to choosing unhealthier foods.”

    Indeed, in a prior study, other researchers found that even short exposure to music can induce measurable cardiovascular and respiratory effects, with slower rhythms promoting a more relaxed effect, evident by decreased blood pressure levels, breathing rate, and heart rate. And this relaxed effect can lead to more mindfulness and acuity—particularly when it comes to food.

    A noisier environment, on the other hand, may enhance stimulation and stress levels, which can promote cravings for high-energy or high-fat foods.

    “Restaurants and supermarkets can use ambient music strategically to influence consumer buying behavior,” explained Dr. Biswas.

    To that end, Dr. Biswas and colleagues conducted a pilot study, two field experiments, and five laboratory studies to investigate the impact of ambient music and background noise volume on dietary choices and food sales among diners.

    For the main part of the study (field study 1), the investigators played low- (55 decibels) and high-volume music (70 decibels) across various genres (ie, pop, rock, jazz, blues, and soul) in a loop for several hours on two random days (Wednesday: soft music; Friday: loud music) of the same week at a Stockholm café. During this time, they observed as diners reviewed and selected menu items that were classified into “healthy” (eg, vegetable wraps), “unhealthy” (eg, red-meat sandwiches and cake), and “neutral” (eg, coffee and tea) categories.

    According to their findings, more patrons ordered unhealthy food items when loud music was playing compared with quieter music (52% vs 42%, respectively). Overall, Dr. Biswas and coauthors found that 20% more customers ordered high-calorie foods when exposed to higher volume music, irrespective of which song was playing.

    The authors suggested that diners’ preference for high-fat foods may be due to people’s need to seek comfort when stressed or overstimulated: “Not surprisingly, chronic dieters and restrained eaters are especially sensitive to the effects of stress. Excitement/stress lead individuals to choose unhealthy foods mainly because sweet and fatty foods help reduce high levels of excitement and stress. In fact, research with both humans and animals suggests that unhealthy/comfort foods can alleviate physiological stress responses.”

    To further test this hypothesis, Dr. Biswas and colleagues replicated the first field experiment but within a different setting: a Swedish supermarket. They found that shoppers bought more junk food and red meat upon exposure to high-volume music (70 decibels) and purchased more produce upon exposure to quieter music (55 decibels).

    The additional clinical and laboratory studies supported findings from the two field experiments.

    “While prior research, in the context of food sales, has outlined managerial strategies for other elements of retail atmospherics, such as ambient lighting, no research has examined the effects of ambient music strategies. The present research takes an important step in that direction,” wrote the authors.

    “Our findings are also important for consumers since they suggest that one way to resist the temptation of unhealthy foods at restaurants/stores with high volume music might be to try to relax while making choices and purchases,” they added. “Alternatively, consumers might opt to shop and dine in retail settings that have lower volumes of ambient music and noise.”

    The authors acknowledged that their study did have some limitations. Some of the laboratory studies, for example, had relatively small sample sizes. In addition, the investigators recognized that there could be other processes apart from relaxation, such as self-efficacy, that might play a role in the impact of music volume on food choices.

    Nevertheless, Dr. Biswas and coauthors concluded that their findings may provide regulators with a non-restrictive means of curbing unhealthy food consumption: “Unlike restrictive regulatory policies, a sensory cue, like ambient music, can be more effective in the long run given the non-restrictive nature of such a cue and also due to the fact that sensory cues would influence behaviors in subliminal and unconscious ways.”

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