Brainmatters | Why Pharrell’s ‘Happy’ should be obligatory for group work


I have never had any surgery. Nor do I aspire to it. Still, should it ever come to that, then – apart from grilling the surgeon about his alleged expertise in the relevant cutting job – I will also ask him what is on the play list for that day. After all, the choice of music, as a recently published article in Journal of Organizational Behavior would have it, can ensure that the surgical team works together just a touch better.

Music has the wonderful capacity to make life just a bit better or easier at more and less crucial moments. Reel2Real’s ‘I Like To Move It’ makes the last lap of my weekly spinning work-out just bearable. In the car I need to watch out when I hear ‘Get Busy Child’ by The Crystal Method: mindful of WipeOut low flyers I easily speed up to 140. And should things work out wrong with my love, I shall also howl along passionately with Adele’s ‘Someone Like You’.

It is no wonder then that music has for many years now been used cleverly in shops, casinos, and public areas. And as ‘arbeidsvitaminen’. I am briefly musing compassionately about the award-winning(!)* radio broadcasting program by the same name, in which anonymous employees get to determine the programing for two hours, to support their unwearying work. It can still be heard every working day on Radio 5. Heart-warming!

So now it has turned out that music also makes us more cooperative. That is, when we play the right kind of music. The research conducted by Kevin Kniffin and colleagues (2016) was subject to two conditions. In one condition while performing a joint task the subjects listened to songs like ‘Yellow Submarine’ (The Beatles), ‘Walking on Sunshine’ (Katrina and the Waves), and the signature tune for the TV series Happy Days. Songs that make you feel cheerful. In the other condition they listened to less light-footed heavy-metal work like ‘Smokahontas’ by Attack Attack! and ‘You Ain’t No Family’ by iwrestledabearonce. Clearly less cheerful songs. Strong-as-iron band names, by the way.

And the outcome? Subjects in the condition ‘cheerful songs’ behaved consistently more cooperatively and pro-socially than the subjects in the condition ‘terrible noise’. This speaks for not only paying attention to who gets coffee when we perform group work, but also to who determines the play list. For this once it is better if it is not the ardent hard rock fan but the feel-good music lover who selects the songs.

Complex duties are carried out best with ‘The Sound of Silence’, by the way.

Dr. Josette Gevers, Associate Professor of Team Effectiveness with the Human Performance Management group

*On May 1, 2006, the program was mentioned in the Guinness Book of Records as longest running national radio broadcast in the world.

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