Cutting-Edge Leadership

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What Rock and Roll Songs Teach Us About Psychology

Sometimes there is truth in rock n' roll lyrics.

Music lyrics often involve observations (and hypotheses) about human behavior. Very often, song lyrics refer to everyday life, love, and relationships, and raise interesting psychological questions. Here are some song titles/lyrics and the psychological research behind them.

Love Hurts (Everly Brothers/Nazareth). If you listen to the Nazareth version of this song, it sounds as if the lead singer is in actual physical pain. Neuropsychological research suggests that lost love can indeed cause physical pain, and that the pain can be alleviated by aspirin! You can read more about this research here.

Something in The Way She Moves. (Beatles). This song suggests that there is more to physical attraction than just beauty. Our research shows that there is both “static” physical attractiveness and “dynamic” attractiveness that comes from nonverbal communication and the expression of personality through body language. Read more on this here.

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Out of Sight, Out of Mind/Misery Love Company (Anthrax). Maybe the heavy metal band, Anthrax, is full of ex-social psychology students because several of their songs, discuss social phenomena that have been studied by social psychologists. The first, “Out of Sight, Out of Mind,” is actually supported by research. Long distance relationships often fail because of the inability to maintain relationship closeness, and the availability of other potential partners. It is not true that “Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder” (Loudon Wainwright).

There has been considerable research that suggests that when people are in an emotional state, particularly misery, they do indeed want company – with one caveat: a miserable individual wants company who is also miserable. If the other person is in a happy state, then it doesn’t work.

You Can’t Always Get What You Want. (Rolling Stones). The psychological part of this song is in the follow-up line, “you get what you need.” Research suggests that although we may want all kinds of things – money, fortune, fame – a great deal of money or fame doesn’t necessarily make people happy. In fact, research on income suggests that there is no increase in happiness after a person’s income reaches a certain level (about $75,000 at the time of the research – probably a bit more today). And, individual differences might suggest that some people “Can’t Get No Satisfaction” “No Matter What.” 

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Ronald E. Riggio, Ph.D., is the Henry R. Kravis Professor of Leadership and Organizational Psychology at Claremont McKenna College.

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