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The Right Songs to Sing

Things got pretty nasty during the 2008 Presidential campaign, but researchers have discovered a way for everybody to "be nice" during future campaigns and political rallies. It has to do with the music: they shouldn't sing patriotic songs, they should sing children's songs instead.

Psychologists Eduardo Alvarado and Donald Saucier studied the behaviors elicited from the musical lyrics of common songs. They wanted to know the positive and negative responses that are stimulated in listeners from the lyrics to a variety of songs, including patriotic and Christmas music. This study was based on the proven psychological theory that if someone witnesses violent behavior, they are likely behave violently. This is known as "priming." This occurs when someone is exposed to a certain environment and their subconscious is activated, and then they tend to act in accordance with that environment without deliberately meaning to.

The things that influence this type of "copying" behavior can be surprisingly subtle. Saucier says, "Relatively small-scale primes may activate certain reactions, and these may be pro-social or anti-social depending on the context."

The songs involved in their study were patriotic songs, such as "The Star-Spangled Banner"; secular Christmas songs, such as "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer"; religious Christmas songs, such as "O Holy Night"; and neutral songs, such as "Itsy Bitsy Spider."

Participants filled out a survey that asked questions about their religion and their attitudes toward other cultures and diversity. Half of the participants were asked to complete the survey before the lyric exercise, and the other half completed the survey after the exercise.

When the researchers looked overall at the surveys to see if there was a change in the responses before and after completing the lyrics exercise, the preliminary findings showed that the patriotic songs had a negative effect on the participants, as shown by their responses to the survey's questions about other cultures and diversity. The patriotic songs made the participants close-minded and prejudiced. "Once they were in a patriotic point of view, they were less empathetic," Alvarado says. "They didn't put themselves in other people's perspective."

Though songs like "Itsy Bitsy Spider" and "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" were meant to be neutral influences, the researchers found that they stimulated a pro-social response, probably because they took people back to their kindergarten days, when they were exhorted to "share" and "be nice." It turns out that the McCain/Palin and Hillary campaigns would have been much more effective had they started with a chorus of "Ring Around the Rosy (more fun to watch, too)!"

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