The idea that music can soothe and relax us is so engrained that it can be easy to forget about music's potential to disquiet and disturb.
Researchers in Israel found evidence of music's effect on aggression when they studied football (soccer) fans' chanting during games. The aggression and violence (verbal assaults, throwing of objects, vandalism and fighting) that sometimes occur during professional athletic contests can be a serious social problem. Many of the situational factors that seem to contribute to aggressive behaviour have already been studied, including the size of the audience, the number of fouls in the game, and the level of noise in the stadium (Russell, 2004). But the effect that communal chanting might have on aggression levels has been examined only recently.
In a study published in The Journal of Applied Social Psychology (Bensimon and Bodner, 2011) male fans were approached before a professional soccer game, asked if they planned to take part in collective chanting, and then asked to fill out Buss-Durkee Hostility Inventory (BDHI). This is a self-report questionnaire designed to measure levels of aggression. At the end of the game, researchers approached a different group of fans, determined which ones had joined in with the chanting, and asked all of them to fill out the BDHI.
The researchers predicted that the fans who were surveyed after the game would show higher levels of aggression than those surveyed before the game. This turned out to be the case, both for those who planned to chant and those who said they would not join in. The authors further hypothesized that the spectators who chanted during the game would show higher levels of aggression than those who did not. Again, their prediction was borne out.
How might chanting contribute to spectators' levels of reported aggression? The authors of the study speculate that hundreds or even thousands of voices raised together loudly might have an anonymizing effect, resulting in a "contagious emotional atmosphere." This in turn might lead to feelings of aggression and even acts of violence. The content of the chants (insulting and possibly also racist or homophobic) is also likely to be relevant.
Bensimon and Bodner offer some practical recommendations to diffuse the feelings of aggression aroused during professional sports matches. If both teams are from the same country, playing the national anthem at halftime or at the end of the game might help to foster experience of national unity, as opposed to feelings of allegiance to different teams or regions of the country. This is certainly worth a try and would be interesting to test. However some existing research with students at the University of California, San Diego, is somewhat discouraging (Konečni et. al., 2007). American participants who heard the U.S. national anthem were no more likely to display prosocial behaviour (willingness to donate blood or to tutor disadvantaged children) than those who had heard the Australian national anthem!
Bensimon, M., Bodner, E. (2011). Playing With Fire: The Impact of Football Game Chanting on Level of Aggression. The Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 10: 2421-33.
Konečni, V., Wanic, R., Brown, A. (2007) Emotional and Aesthetic Antecedents and Consequences of Music-Induced Thrills. American Journal of Psychology 120: 619-43.
Russell, G. W. (2004). Sport riots: A social-psychological review. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 9, 353-378.