Diana Zuckerman, Ph.D.
Although Eminem and other rappers have attracted a great deal of attention for violent song lyrics, most of the public attention about the impact of media violence on youth has been on movies, TV and videogames. Since kids often listen to music while doing other activities, it is possible that violent lyrics are not as influential as visual media.
On the other hand, favorite songs may be listened to hundreds of times, and can have a strong emotional impact. For those reasons, violent songs could be more influential than other media violence.
Previous studies have found that enjoying or listening to heavy metal and rap music correlates with hostile attitudes, negative attitudes toward women, lower academic performance, behavior problems in school, drug use and arrests. Experimental studies of music without lyrics found that listening to “tense” music resulted in people writing more unpleasant stories in the Thematic Apperception Test.
A new study1 of violent lyrics is based on five experiments, each conducted on students from a large Midwestern university. Each study ranged in size between 60 and 160 students, approximately half male and half female.
In each experiment, young people listened to the lyrics of a song, then completed a scale aimed at measuring whether they were feeling hostile or having aggressive thoughts. Some songs had violent lyrics and some did not; some songs were humorous and others were not.
Hostile feelings and aggressive thoughts were measured in several ways, such as the students’ greater tendency to turn incomplete words into hostile words (changing “h_t” to hit rather than hat), and the authors’ State Hostility Scale, which consists of 35 sentences describing current feelings, either hostile or friendly (such as “I feel furious” or “I feel like yelling at someone”).
Students who listened to the violent song expressed more hostility and aggressive thoughts immediately afterwards. There was no effect of violent lyrics on arousal, understandability of lyrics or familiarity with the songs. However, in some cases if the students had another task between the time they listened to the songs and filled out the questionnaires, they did not seem more hostile in their responses to the questionnaires, although they continued to have more aggressive thoughts. The students who listened to a violent humorous song were not as influenced as those who listened to a violent song that was not humorous. The authors conclude that humor partially canceled out the effect of violence on state hostility, but did not completely cancel out violence for aggressive cognitions.
Using a meta-analysis on the five experiments, the researchers concluded that violent lyrics increased the students’ feelings of hostility and likelihood of interpreting ambiguous cues as hostile, and this was true (although less influential) even if the violent lyrics were in a humorous song.
The researchers were surprised to find that students who were initially more hostile did not respond differently to the violent songs than those who were less hostile.
The strength of the studies are that they used songs with similar styles and the same artists, so that the only difference was whether lyrics were violent. They also studied whether the songs increase arousal, not aggressiveness. Surprisingly, they found no differences in arousal by violent songs.
Overall, the findings from the five experiments were consistent with each other, suggesting that listening to even one violent song can have a short-term impact on a college student. But the fact that students did not show increased hostility when they were given another task between listening to the song and participating in the hostility survey or word tasks indicates that the impact of these songs on hostile feelings may be short-lived. However, their impact on aggressive thoughts may be longer lasting.
Because other youth were not studied, it is not possible to know if younger or older students, or less educated youth, would be affected the same way.
Unfortunately, this study does not study the impact of repeated exposure to the same violent lyrics. It seems logical that if the song had an impact after listening just once, the impact would be greater if the student listened to it many times. Because listening just once causes short-term hostility and increases the chances of interpreting ambiguous cues as hostile, the authors note that it is possible that those hostile feelings could generate negative reactions from other people, which could start a cycle of hostile or aggressive behaviors. That, however, was not evaluated in this study.
1. Anderson C, Camagey N, Eubanks J. Exposure to violent media: The effect of songs with violent lyrics on aggressive thoughts and feelings. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, April 2003, Vol. 84, No. 5, pgs. 960-971