March 8, 2012


Calm Down, Internet: Rock Music Doesn't Make You Racist

Kevin Mazur
Kevin Mazur

An article that set the web buzzing this week reported that a recent study found that listening to rock music might tip white people toward racism. That's some pretty heady stuff. We contacted the study's author, a professor at the University of Minnesota, for clarification and found out that her findings have been slightly conflated by the Internet coverage.

In response to the Daily Mail's summation of her study, Professor Heather LaMarre said she felt the headline was "misleading." "To say after listening to Bruce Springsteen white students were racist is a misinterpretation of the findings," she stated. 

"In a nutshell, we were testing the power of music to affect how people treat others. What we found was that music genre, not just lyrics, has a powerful effect on people's behavior. However, we are not saying rock music makes people racist. Music appears to cue one's identity, which leads to in-group favoritism. That is different than explicit racism."

In-group favoritism means that people give preference to the group they identify with. That often means a predisposition toward one's own ethnic groups, but can also apply to religion, nationality, sexual preference or even sports. While it's certainly connected to racism, this phenomenon is different than what LaMarre refers to as "targeted racism."

That distinction aside, the University of Minnesota professor says, "The study is generally well represented in the rest of the article."

"Simply put, people who listened to music that they associated with their own ethnic identity treated their own ethnic group better than those from dissimilar groups [such as] ethnic minorities," LaMarre further clarified.

"Theoretically, we suspect this would be true for any person of any ethnicity... I would expect to find that minorities who listen to culturally relevant music would then demonstrate increased favorability toward their in-group—their minority group—as well. Thus, I do not believe this only applies to white people or that it is the same as targeted racism."

Regardless of how far you take the implications of the study's findings, these are incredibly compelling results. Particularly since the 138 students examined didn't know that music—rock, R&B, hip hop or otherwise—was even part of the study.

"We actually had them listen to the music without their realizing it, then asked them to perform a task that was a real behavior. Which is much more valid than asking them what they would do if they hypothetically listened to music," LaMarre explained. "So we feel very confident in the results. The study design and results were also reviewed by other scientists…. It was a highly controlled experiment that has very small standard errors."

What do you think of the study's troubling findings? Have you ever noticed a connection like this in day to day life?