The power of sound for behavior change

Text: Professor Daniel Västfjäll

Decision, emotion & experience

Most of us have experienced that auditory sensations, sounds and music, can arouse profound and deep emotional reactions that may inspire and motivate us in powerful ways.

You might have put on a playlist on Spotify just to feel more energized, joyful or focused, or taken a long walk in nature to reduce your stress levels by the sound of water, trees and birds. Sounds and music have the ability to evoke strong feelings in us and consequently, it can motivate and facilitate us to act, i.e. create behavioral change. In many cases, even more effectively than visual stimuli.

How come?

Sound is intimately connected to emotion, attention and action1. A basic function of the auditory system is to steer attention to information in the environment that we should prioritize and act upon2.

Moreover, auditory information is temporal and supports other senses such as vision. This means that we perceive and react faster to sound that we hear than to visual objects we see. However, when trying to create behavioral change in different contexts we have mostly been relying on visual solutions, i.e. visual nudges. Green footsteps leading to a trash can, placing carrot sticks instead of candy in the grocery store checkout, framing of messages, displaying how many people are using our product (social proof). And so on.

Visual nudges have of course proven to have fascinating impact on our behaviors but we believe that sound can have that too.

For example, in a digital context, sounds can off-load a visually complex interface and better use limited attentional capacities among users. But, sounds are so much more than a substitute for visual information and a simple feedback channel. Music is central to a sense of engagement and reaction (just think about how the duh-duh duh-duh sound in Jaws was so much scarier than the visual of the plastic shark). In digital nudging, sound and music could be used to a much larger extent both to facilitate behavior change and elicit positive consumer or user reactions.

When will the sound revolution begin?

  1. Juslin, P., & Västfjäll, D. (2008). Emotional responses to music: the need to consider underlying mechanisms

  2. Asutay, E., & Västfjäll, D. (2015). Attentional and emotional prioritization of the sounds occurring outside the visual field