The Aural Creation of Craving

What are the world's most 'addictive' sounds?

Posted Mar 25, 2019

Throughout my career I’ve carried out quite a lot of research into the marketing and advertising of gambling and the way in which some gambling operators use psychology to exploit our senses to maximize profit. Connected to this, I’ve also published a number of papers that have examined the role of sound (and particularly music) can influence the way in which individuals gamble (see ‘Further reading’ below).

The reason I mention this was that I recently came across an online article by Fast Company entitled ‘The 10 most addictive sounds in the world’ based on some market research carried out by Martin Lindstrom, the Danish ‘neuromarketeer’, author of the book Buyology – Truth and Lies About Why We Buy (I do love a good pun). Lindstrom is known for using neuroscientific techniques to help commercial operators better understand their clientele. One of his collaborations was with Elias Arts (a sound and music design company) who joined forces to examine the world’s most ‘addictive sounds’ in what an article in The Village Voice dubbed a “neuromarketing experiment”.

Obviously, my interest was piqued when I saw the use of the word ‘addictive’ but their working definition of ‘addictive’ had nothing to do with individuals being addicted to sounds but simply referred to an individual’s response to specific sounds. (Even with this explanation, I still can’t see why the word ‘addictive’ was used but its’ use probably guarantees more people – like myself – will want to read about the study). Lindstrom told the media that:

“We have all those top 10s of everything, but most top 10s are based on the visual sense. What we realized in another study is the most prominent sense we have [when we see a commercial] is not the sense of sight or smell, but the sense of sound”.

As far as I can tell, the study Lindstrom carried out has not been formally published in a peer-reviewed journal (although he has published academic papers). The study was described in the international media as involving 50 participants and the research team monitored their brainwave, pupil, and facial muscle activity while listening to 50 different everyday sounds (both man-made ‘branded’ sounds and those ‘non-branded’ sounds that occur naturally). Lindstrom concluded that the most ‘addictive sounds’ weren’t necessarily the non-branded sounds of nature because some of the commercial man-made branded sounds (described as “beeps, jingles and ditties”) were more ‘addictive’ than a number of familiar sounds found in everyday life.

Overall, the sound of a baby giggling was ranked as the most ‘addictive sound’ (although I’ve not seen the specific methodology employed to ascertain how being the top ‘addictive sound’ was actually assessed. Apparently Lindstrom examined the “dimension of the responses” and the “contrast and balance of all three [brainwave, pupil and muscle] factors” – although he did admit that such factors can lead to both positive and negative reactions). The second and third spots were Intel’s computer startup chime and the sound of a vibrating mobile phone. Other top non-branded sounds were the sound of a sizzling steak and the lighting of a cigarette being inhaled. Lindstrom claimed that the participants “weren’t responding to the structures of the sounds, but what they mean in a greater social context”. In relation to what makes a sound ‘addictive’, Lindstrom did at least make one reference to a classic sign of addiction (i.e., craving):

“It’s not the sound itself, but the consequence of the sound. A laughing (or crying) baby elicits a maternal protection mechanism, a buzzing cell phone prompts a pick-up, a sizzling steak means a solid meal is on the way. For advertisers and consumers, the research indicates a whole new battleground of multi-sensory advertising. Sometimes the sound from one category generates a craving in another category. For example, given the links between tobacco and beverages, the sound of a cigarette being lit could be used in an ad for alcohol. Although sound is more intuitive for people, the field is still quite young. It will be a long time before it will be so prominent”.

In a story for ABC News, other academics were asked for their thoughts on Lindstrom’s study. One American ‘auditory neuroscientist, Professor Barbara Shinn-Cunningham (actually Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Boston University) said that:

“Although the sounds identified by the study are extremely meaningful, with the exception of the giggling baby, most are not inherently addictive. They’re identifiable. The brain responds to repetition. Our brains are good at picking out patterns that repeat. We’ve evolved to do that. If I chose an arbitrary sound, as long as it was clear and distinctive, and then played it 50 times a day for the next five years (as many of the branded sounds have been), it would become attention-grabbing. I don’t think [the sounds on the list are] so much addictive because of their acoustic properties, but because of their ubiquity. There is neurophysiological evidence showing that the brain is hardwired to notice certain kinds of sounds. For example, the abrupt, jarring sound of a slamming door could prompt cells in a person’s brain stem to fire even before that person was conscious of it. For early humans, that kind of sound could have meant it’s time to run for the hills. [Also] studies have demonstrated the existence of a so-called ‘cocktail party effect’. At a party, if you hear your name in the background, even if you’re not paying attention, that’s something that will draw your attention involuntarily. Your brain is so exposed to your name and it’s tremendously important to you, so it encodes that so you respond to it”

According to Lindstrom’s research, the most ‘addictive sounds’ in the world (although they are arguably US-centric to say the least) are: (1) baby giggle, (2) Intel chime, (3) vibrating phone, (4) ATM/cash register, (5) National Geographic theme tune, (6) MTV theme tune, (7) T-Mobileringtone, (8) McDonald’s jingle, (9) ‘Star Spangled Banner’ (tune), and (10) State Farm jingle.

The Fast Company article also noted that:

“Sound is immensely powerful. And yet 83% of all the advertising communication we’re exposed to daily (bearing in mind that we will see two million TV commercials in a single lifetime) focuses, almost exclusively, on the sense of sight. That leaves just 17% for the remaining four senses. Think about how much we rely on sound. It confirms a connection when dialing or texting on cell phones and alerts us to emergencies. When the sound was removed from slot machines in Las Vegas, revenue fell by 24%. Experiments undertaken in restaurants show that when slow music (slower than the rhythm of a heartbeat) is played, we eat slower–and we eat more!”.

These types of findings suggest that ‘audio branding’ is likely to be an increasing topic of academic research given that every company wants an edge in selling their product. While I am totally unconvinced that the word ‘addictive’ should be used in this type of research, that’s not to say that sound doesn’t have an influence in the development of addictive behaviour more generally. It looks like a case of watch (or should that be listen?) to this space.

References

Bark Soho (2016). 3 of the most addictive sounds in the world. October 16. Located at: http://www.barksoho.co.uk/blog/3-of-the-most-addictive-sounds-in-the-world/

Dixon, L., Trigg, R. & Griffiths, M. (2007). An empirical investigation of music and gambling behaviour. International Gambling Studies, 7, (3), 315-326.

Edroso, R. (2010). “Most addictive” sounds mostly jingles, machine noises. The Village Voice, February 22. located at: https://www.villagevoice.com/2010/02/22/most-addictive-sounds-mostly-jingles-machine-noises/

Fast Company (2010). The 10 most addictive sounds in the world. February 22. Located at: https://www.fastcompany.com/1555211/10-most-addictive-sounds-world

Griffiths, M.D. & Parke, J. (2003). The environmental psychology of gambling. In G. Reith (Ed.), Gambling: Who wins? Who loses? pp. 277-292. New York: Prometheus Books.

Griffiths, M.D. & Parke, J. (2005). The psychology of music in gambling environments: an observational research note. Journal of Gambling Issues, 13.

Heussner, K.M. (2010). The world’s 10 most addictive sounds. ABC News, February 24. Located at: https://abcnews.go.com/Technology/worlds-10-addictive-sounds/story?id=9923506

Lindstrom, M. (2008). Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy. New York: Doubleday

Parke, J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2006). The psychology of the fruit machine: The role of structural characteristics re-visited.  International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 4, 151-179.

Parke, J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2007). The role of structural characteristics in gambling.  In G. Smith, D. Hodgins & R. Williams (Eds.), Research and Measurement Issues in Gambling Studies (pp.211-243). New York: Elsevier.

Spenwyn, J., Barrett, D.K.R. & Griffiths, M.D. (2010). The role of lights and music in gambling behavior: An empirical pilot study. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 8, 107-118.