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Evaluating Time Delay and Exposure to Songs with Prosocial Lyrics and Their Effects on Prosocial Behavior.

Previous research has utilized the framework of the General Learning Model (GLM), to determine if prosocial media reduced aggression, as well as to investigate other effects of prosocial media on behavior (Jacob, Gueguen, & Boulbry 2010; Greitemeyer, 2009a, 2009b, 2011). The GLM applies cognitive and social learning theories to how individual and situational factors interact and affect an individual's cognition, affect, and arousal, thus influencing the perception and interpretation of events and how they shape behavior in social situations (Buckley & Anderson, 2006). Several studies have compared exposure of songs with prosocial to neutral lyrics, showing that individuals exposed to prosocial lyrics experience a decrease in aggressive cognition and an increase in accessibility to prosocial cognition (Greitemeyer, 2009a, 2009b, 2011). Further studies showed that although prosocial songs increased prosocial thoughts, the cognitive route was not the mediator to prosocial action (Greitemeyer, 2009a, 2009b). Through several studies involving measures of empathy and responses to essays describing individuals in need, exposure to prosocial songs increases empathy, leading to increased helping behavior to not only that person in need, but also to other people in need (Greitemeyer, 2009a, 2009b). Therefore, past research has determined that within the GLM, the affective route increases empathy and mediates prosocial behavior. The current study intends to add to the existing literature by evaluating immediate prosocial intentions as well as actual donation behavior after a time lapse of one week from exposure to the prosocial lyrics.

Studies have shown that in a natural setting, subconscious exposure to certain types of music has affected the behavior of those observed. One such study investigated the effects of romantic music on the willingness of a female participant to provide a male confederate with her telephone number (Gueguen, Jacob, & Lamy, 2010). Women who heard romantic music were more likely to comply with the request. Additionally, another study found that romantic music played in a flower shop resulted in patrons spending more time and money in the store (Gueguen & Jacob, 2010). In this study, three conditions were examined: the first condition was exposure to romantic music, the second condition was exposure to pop music, and the control condition provided exposure to no music. No difference was found in patron's behavior when exposed to pop music or no music, but there was a difference in the romantic music condition. It is logical to conclude that this is due to the fact that romantic music is consistent with the feelings and thoughts people have regarding flower shops. In regard to the earlier study mentioned, romantic music is compatible with a suitor asking for a potential date's phone number. Therefore, it is practical to believe that exposure to music with prosocial lyrics will affect prosocial behavior.

The effects of songs with prosocial lyrics on restaurant tipping is another area where prosocial lyrics and helping behavior have been investigated. Tipping, like donation behavior, can be categorized as prosocial. As hypothesized, there was a significant increase in tips received during periods of prosocial song exposure compared to both the neutral song exposure and the baseline song exposure (Jacob et al., 2010). Thus, the effect of prosocial music has been shown to have an effect when conscious attention and subconscious exposure has occurred.

In summary, past research has tested the effect of prosocial lyrics in both natural and laboratory settings, and has found an increase in both the intention of prosocial behavior as well as the actual observed prosocial behavior. However, in neither environment has the duration of the effects of the prosocial music been investigated. While not directly predicted from GLM, the current study will also explore the effects of prosocial exposure on prosocial behavior with a one-week time lapse to allow participants time to collect items for donation. It is hypothesized that the participants exposed to the prosocial song condition will show higher donation intention and higher actual donation behavior than those exposed to the neutral song condition. Additionally, it is expected that the duration of the effects of the prosocial lyrics will not be as strong after the one-week time lapse, which can be assessed by comparing the difference between donation intention and actual donations received.



Participants included 110 English speaking, college age men and women living in Conway, South Carolina. Women made up 65% of the participant population, men made up 15%, and 20% did not specify their gender. Participant ages ranged from 18 to 42 years, with 49% being 18 years of age. Fifty-four percent of the participants were identified as Caucasian, 15% were African American, 4% were of Latino descent, 3% were Asian, 1% was a Pacific Islander, and 23% did not specify their ethnicity. The participants were students in four undergraduate psychology classes. Each class was randomly assigned to one of two conditions: a prosocial lyrics or control condition. The prosocial lyrics condition included 54 participants, whereas the control condition included 56 participants. The demographics of the participants in the two conditions were similar. Forty-nine percent of the participants were freshmen, 13% were sophomores, 7% were juniors, 12% were seniors, and 19% did not specify their class. All participants graduated from high school and were pursuing a Bachelor's degree. The largest portion of participants were pursuing a degree in psychology. However, degrees in communication, public health, biology, education, business, history, philosophy, graphic design, exercise and sport science, marketing, English, accounting, hospitality and tourism, and social work were also identified. The researcher visited classes and invited students to participate during their class time. Students had the option to leave class and not participate without penalty, but all students agreed to participate. Their classroom was the location of all data collection. No compensation was provided. All participants were treated ethically according to American Psychological Association ethical guidelines (APA, 2002).


A PowerPoint presentation with background music which lasted 2 minutes and 48 seconds was utilized. The presentation included 23 slides, including pictures and factual statements describing a program in the local school district, the Therapeutic Learning Center, that provided educational and mental health services to children classified as emotionally disturbed. Students were not familiar with this program before the study. The background music utilized depended upon the condition assigned. As in Greitmeyer (2011), we used "Heal the World" by Michael Jackson for the prosocial lyric song and "On the Line" by Michael Jackson as the control, or neutral lyric. Both songs were longer than 4 minutes, so we faded the music out at the end of the slide presentation. We developed two identical surveys for the study: one established participants' intent to donate to the program described and the other noted actual donations collected one week later. Specific item options for donation included: football, basketball, modeling clay, noise cancelling headphones, coffee, cardstock, plain white t-shirts (all sizes), colorful Sharpies, double sided tape, sticky back Velcro, paint for a mural, medium paintbrush, large paintbrush, children's size balance ball chair with stability legs, Band-Aids, Ziploc bags (any size), Kleenex, and starlight mints. There was also an option to select "I do not wish to donate any items at this time." The prosocial condition survey also included a question to determine if participants recalled the song played as the background music.


The experimenter randomly assigned two undergraduate psychology classes to the prosocial lyrics condition and two classes to a neutral song (control) condition. The researcher visited each class twice, one week apart. During week one, the researcher introduced herself as a school employee and an undergraduate psychology major. She then explained that the professor had allowed her to utilize some of their class time for a special presentation. The researcher then presented a PowerPoint presentation introducing facts on students receiving special education services, specifically those classified as emotionally disturbed. One condition included the prosocial lyrics song, "Heal the World" by Michael Jackson, as background music to the PowerPoint presentation. The other condition included the neutral song, "On the Line" by Michael Jackson, as background music to the PowerPoint presentation. After the PowerPoint presentation, the researcher explained that, as mentioned, the school program that was introduced is very low budget, but serves a vulnerable student population with high needs. She explained how there is no Parent Teacher Organization responsible for fundraising and the school only operates due to grants and donations that the staff is able to procure. The researcher then passed out a survey listing items that teachers and staff were requesting for the program and instructed participants to indicate any items they would be willing to purchase and donate to the Therapeutic Learning Center by placing a check mark on the line in front of the item. She suggested that participants jot down what they have checked off or take a picture of the list with their cell phone. The researcher then explained that items would be collected the next week during class.

Participants were asked to provide a research identification number to ensure confidentiality while also allowing a system to send reminder emails prior to the next week's class. It was also explained that in order to record data regarding intended and actual donations, their permission was needed. The researcher passed out the donation intention survey along with two consent forms, one was signed and returned, and the participants kept the other. After time was allowed for the survey and consent forms to be completed, they were collected. During week two, the researcher reminded the class of who she was and that she was there last week and shared a presentation with them. She then passed out a survey with the list of donation items identical to the one passed out during week one. This survey did have one additional question at the end asking participants to identify any song they remembered from the PowerPoint presentation from the week before. After allowing participants time to fill it out, they were collected along with any donations brought in. The researcher then read a debriefing statement to the entire class and thanked them for their participation and donations. Items donated were given to the Therapeutic Learning Center.


It was hypothesized that participants in the prosocial lyrics condition would have a higher donation intention and actual donation total than participants in the control (neutral) condition. First, there was a significant difference in intended donations between the prosocial lyrics (M = 2.02, SD = 2.79) and the control (M = 1.14, SD = 2.27) conditions; i(108) = 2.90, p =.002, d =.34. Second, an independent samples t test was conducted to compare actual items donated in the prosocial lyrics condition and the control condition. There was also a significant difference in actual donations between the prosocial lyrics (M = 0.74, SD = 1.47) and the control (M = 0.19, SD = 0.49) conditions; t(83) = 2.58, p =.006, d =.52.

Additionally, fewer items were expected to actually be donated than items that participants had intended to donate. Of the 107 items that participants in the prosocial lyrics condition intended to donate, 31 actual items were donated. Therefore, 29% of the intended items were donated. Of the 65 items that participants in the control condition intended to donate, 8 items were donated. This amounts to 12% of the intended items actually being donated. There was an interaction between condition and actual donations, [chi square] (1, N = 172) = 6.40, p =.01; the prosocial lyrics group donated more items than the control group. Overall, of 172 intended items, 39 were actually donated, amounting to 23% of the total intended items.

We also found an interaction between condition and number of participants intending to make donations, [chi square] (1, N = 110) = 12.05, p < .001; more participants in the prosocial lyrics group intended to donate items compared to participants in the control group. Out of the 54 participants in the prosocial lyrics condition, 44 participants intended to donate 107 items. This amounts to 81.5% of the participants intending to donate an average of 1.98 items per participant. Sixteen participants actually donated 31 items, accounting for 29.6% of the participant total at an average of 0.57 items per participant. Out of the 56 participants in the control condition, 28 participants intended to donate 65 items. This amounts to 50% of the participants intending to donate an average 1.16 items per participant. Four participants actually donated, accounting for 7.14% of the participant total at an average of 0.143 items per participant.

Additional comparisons were made between individual items. The most likely items participants intended to donate, as well as actually donated, were Band-Aids, Ziploc bags, and Kleenex. Band-Aids made up 23% of the intended items to be donated as well as 23% of the actual donated items. Ziploc bags made up 19% of the intended items to be donated and were 15% of the actual items donated. Kleenex made up 21% of the intended items to be donated and was 26% of the actual items donated. Interestingly, colorful Sharpie markers only made up 8% of the intended items to be donated, but were 15% of the actual items donated. The least likely items participants intended to donate and further did not donate were noise cancelling headphones and children's size balance ball chair with stability legs, with both items making up 0% of both intended and actual items donated. These last two options were not surprising given the high cost of these items.


As hypothesized, the participants in the prosocial lyrics condition intended and actually donated more items than participants in the control condition. This was supported by the results, as there was a significant difference in the number of items that participants in the prosocial lyrics condition intended to donate and the number of items that the participants in the control condition intended to donate. This further supports previous research that determined exposure to songs with prosocial lyrics increases helping behavior (Greitemeyer, 2009a, 2009b; Jacob et al., 2010). However, these studies did not measure donation intention and actual donation behavior within the same study. In the current study, both donation intention and actual donation behavior was measured. Participants exposed to the prosocial lyrics actually donated more items than the participants in the control condition. However, only 28% of the participants remembered the song by name from the previous week. This may have contributed to the reason that fewer items were actually donated than items that participants had intended to donate. Yet the participants that remembered the song were not always the participants who donated items. The song may still have been impactful, but participants just did not know the actual name of the song when asked in the survey.

The GLM states that both personal and situational variables factor into a person's behavior (Buckley & Anderson, 2006). Exposure to prosocial (or neutral) song lyrics could be considered a situational variable. The results suggest that prosocial lyrics had a significant impact on the participant's donation intention. However, given the fact that few participants recalled the song after one week, additional variables may have contributed to the actual donation behavior. Previous research has determined that exposure to songs with prosocial lyrics increases access to prosocial thoughts and that participants rating higher in empathy display more prosocial behavior (Greitemeyer, 2009a, 2009b). It is possible that the immediate effect of the prosocial lyrics on the donation intention was additionally affected by the access to prosocial cognition. It is further possible that the participants who were affected long-term and made a self-initiated effort to bring actual donations back one week later experienced higher levels of empathy for the children in need.

A one-week time lapse was used in the current study in order to gain knowledge on the extent and strength of the effects of the song lyrics. It was expected that the one-week time lapse would weaken the effects of exposure to the prosocial song shown in a difference in intended donation items and actual items donated. This is supported by the results, as less than a quarter (23%) of the intended items in both groups was actually donated. Although it is interesting to note that participants in the prosocial lyrics condition were four times more likely to actually donate than participants in the control condition, thus showing some long-term effect. Further studies would be needed in order to determine why the effects were weakened over time, but still differed between the conditions. Future research could also investigate what other factors were involved, resulting in participants who did not recall the name of the song, yet still donating. It may also be worthwhile to consider other factors to explain why participants who recalled the song donated. This study does not establish the prosocial lyrics as a cause for the donation behavior, only a significant factor that influences both short term and long-term prosocial behavior, although the long-term influence appears to be less than the short term.

A large body of work on prosocial behavior has been laboratory studies that bring the participant's attention to the music. However, one study on tipping behavior occurred in a natural setting (i.e., a restaurant) and involved subconscious exposure to prosocial lyrics (Jacob, et al., 2010). The tipping behavior was considered prosocial and increased in the prosocial lyric condition. Although ultimately leaving a tip is left up to the discretion of the patron, it can be argued that tipping occurs based upon a service that a customer receives. In the current study, the participants did not receive any personal gain or benefits from their donations. Therefore, it adds to current research by showing an increase in selfless prosocial behavior with subconscious exposure to the prosocial song lyrics.

As one would expect, there was also a difference in the value of the items all participants in both conditions were willing to donate. The donation intention survey listed requested items of various prices. Two of the most expensive items listed were noise cancelling headphones and a children's size balance ball chair with stability legs. No participants in either condition intended to or actually donated either of these items. Several items less expensive than these were plain white t-shirts, cardstock, and paint for a mural. Although these items were intended donation items, none of these items was actually donated. However, items such as Kleenex, Band-Aids, and Ziploc bags were consistently the most intended and donated items, making up 64% of the total items donated. Not only were these less expensive items which were easier to obtain from a variety of stores, but they could also be categorized as necessity items for the school. This suggests that there are limits to prosocial behavior motivated by prosocial lyrics. Additional research would be needed in order to determine the reason that certain items were more popular in both the donation intention analysis and the analysis of the actual donated items. Follow up questions about why items were donated could be useful in determining cost-benefit analysis of donation decisions.

The present study can have beneficial societal implications as understanding factors that increase prosocial behavior can facilitate more helping behavior between individuals. For instance, unforeseen occurrences and natural disasters result in families in need. Songs with prosocial lyrics can be utilized to advocate for these families and request the items needed. As the current study has found, the effects of the prosocial lyrics will positively influence selfless donation behavior resulting in those in need receiving supplies and items necessary. Exposing those who are being asked to give to prosocial lyrics should increase goods and services received. This positive manipulation of prosocial behavior is beneficial for the giver as well, as donating may promote internal happiness and fulfillment. However, it is important to note that over half of the participants in the current study were Caucasian women under 20 years old. This limits generalizability of this study.

Future research may want to focus on a larger, more diverse population in order to determine cultural and generational differences that may affect donation behavior.


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Author info: Correspondence should be sent to: Dr. Lubomir Lamy, Universite Paris Descartes, IUT de Paris, CS, 143 avenue de Versailles, 75016 Paris, France, or email:

Chelsey N. Saldamarco & Terry F. Pettijohn II

Coastal Carolina University

Author info: Correspondence should be sent to: Dr. Terry F. Pettijohn II, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, Coastal Carolina University, P.O. Box 261954, Conway, South Carolina, 29528-6054 E-mail:
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Author:Saldamarco, Chelsey N.; Pettijohn, Terry F., II
Publication:North American Journal of Psychology
Date:Dec 1, 2019
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