Watch Li Huang’s interview on INSEAD Knowledge below. 

This piece is published in partnership with INSEAD’s Knowledge blog, a leading online magazine engaged with innovative ideas about the business world.

“When I hear music, I fear no danger. I am invulnerable.”

—Henry David Thoreau

Moments before Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympic medallist, dived into the water to win his 18th and final gold medal at the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London, he was calmly listening to music with his headphones on. This was not the first time he listened to music before an important race, and he is certainly not the only athlete to do so. Many top athletes listen to music to psych themselves up before games. Seeing this ritual time and time again made me wonder whether certain music might prepare us psychologically to achieve our goals. Can music actually make us feel more powerful?

In “The Power of Music: Perceptual and Behavioral Consequences of Powerful Music,” my co-authors and I first tested a range of songs and asked participants to rate how “powerful” they sounded. When we later played the songs to other participants, we found that listening to the powerful songs implicitly activated the construct of power. For example, the participants who listened to the more powerful songs were more likely than those who listened to non-power music to complete the word fragment “p__er” as “power” (rather than, say, “paper”).

More importantly, in subsequent studies, these “power tunes” were found to have caused participants to have certain experiences that previous research has shown to be associated with power: abstract thinking, illusory control, and the tendency to take action. Specifically, participants listening to the high-power music were significantly better at seeing the “big picture” than those listening to the low-power music. For example, studies showed that they were better at finding the commonality among words that are closely and loosely representative of an overarching category (for example, carrot and garlic both being exemplars of vegetables). Moreover, they experienced a sense of control when they didn’t actually have control. They preferred to roll a die themselves rather than letting someone else roll the die for them even though the outcome would be random in either case. Finally, power tunes disinhibited these participants and led to a stronger tendency to take action–for example, making the first move in a debate.

Pump up the bass

What is it about music that makes us feel powerful? While previous research has focused on powerful lyrics, we also realised that dominant individuals in both humans and many animal species often have a deep voice, so, we decided to focus on an element that has not yet received much research attention: the bass. We took a single piece of instrumental music and varied the bass levels, creating a heavy-bass and a light-bass version. As we predicted, participants listening to the heavy-bass version reported feeling more powerful than those listening to the light-bass version.

Power in thought and action

Given that music can improve the ability to “see the forest for the trees” and the tendency to take action, it can play a substantial role in organisational processes. Henry Kissinger said “The task of the leader is to get his people from where they are to where they have not been.” Leaders must have the ability to see the broader landscape of their industry and society. Only after seeing the big picture themselves can they engage others in their vision, chart the course of the best strategy, and mobilize resources accordingly. A quick session with headphones before that next board meeting might help leaders better see the forest for the trees.

Now consider music’s ability to promote action through the feeling of power. Numerous studies, such as Stanford Professor Margaret Neale’s work, have demonstrated a clear advantage of making the first move in negotiations, especially when both negotiators are well prepared. Music could help less assertive negotiators feel more confident, get in there and make the first offer. And for anyone with a job interview on the horizon, pumping yourself up with your favorite tunes might just give you a confidence boost and that extra edge.

So, what exactly should you have on your iPod if you would like a power boost? Of the 31 pieces of music across several different genres that we tested, Queen’s “We Will Rock You,” 2 Unlimited’s “Get Ready for This,” and 50 Cent’s “In Da Club” came out on top. At the bottom of the charts were Fatboy Slim’s “Because We Can,” Baha Men’s “Who Let the Dogs Out,” and Notorious B.I.G.’s “Big Poppa.” How long should you listen to them? Three minutes was enough to make a behavioural difference in our studies. What if you are a fan of other music genres? Don’t worry. Pump up the bass on your favourite tracks and let the feeling of power wash over you.

This article is republished courtesy of INSEAD Knowledge. Copyright INSEAD 2014

Image credit:  Kai Chan Vong via flickr


About The Author

Li Huang
Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior, INSEAD

Prof. Huang holds a PhD in Management and Organizations from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. Her research examines how the tension between contradictory psychological forces drives and regulates mental, social, and organizational life. She is especially interested in how power, creativity, trust, cooperation, ethical decisions, and future-oriented behavior can emerge from these tensions. Widely published in academic journals, her research and insights have also received numerous media mentions including The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Scientific American, and more.