Science Explains Your Boring, Repetitive Musical Taste

In an era in which we’re supposed to have shortened attention spans, hit songs seem to stick around forever. Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines started burning up the charts at the beginning of the summer, and the thing’s still impossible to escape; Thicke will be one of the stars of this Sunday’s Grammy Awards show. And while it may feel like this has ever been so, it hasn’t.

An interesting story last week in the Wall Street Journal found that traditional broadcasters are, in fact, playing fewer songs than they used to, keeping the same few megahits on constant rotation, when a decade ago they would have tried out new songs on listeners. Blurred Lines, the Journal reports, “aired 749,633 times in the 180 markets monitored by Mediabase. That is 2,053 times a day on average. The top song in 2003, When I’m Gone by 3 Doors Down, was played 442,160 times that year.” The piece focused on how services such as Spotify and Pandora are driving the trend. With more and more options available for music listeners, traditional “terrestrial” radio stations want to wring every last drop of commercial potential out of each hit.

The story also noted, however, that part of what’s going on is that broadcasters have better tools for tracking what people actually listen to. Radio programmers used to have to rely on handwritten diaries to find out what listeners preferred; now electronic devices track listening habits for them. The new technology is a lot more accurate, and one of the things it reveals is that listeners are not as interested in novelty and variety as they say they are. When something new comes on the radio, people turn it off.

Not everyone, of course. People’s tastes and their appetite for the new obviously vary, and there’s always the social cachet of being the first to know about something and spread the word. But the Journal’s finding matches up with research in psychology literature. Itamar Simonson, a marketing professor at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, has done research on shopping decisions. He found that when people are buying groceries to last a few days, they choose a variety of flavors and products—different flavors of yogurt, a mixture of snack foods—but if they go to the store every day, they just buy the same flavor over and over. In the first version of his study, Simonson had people imagine they were going to the store; in a later study he tracked actual store purchases.

The behavioral economists Daniel Read and George Loewenstein followed up Simonson’s research with a more in-depth set of studies (PDF), published in 1995. They found, among other things, that if people who had chosen what to eat in advance were asked on the days of consumption if they wanted to change their mind, they tended to say yes, preferring to eat the same thing they had the day before.

A 1992 study led by Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist who would later win the Nobel prize for economics, had subjects eat a bowl of yogurt while listening to the same piece of music at a specified time on seven consecutive days. (It is unclear why yogurt figures so prominently in this sort of research, though the fact that Simonson and Kahneman are both from Israel may have something to do with it.) When asked on the first day how much they thought they’d enjoy the yogurt and the music by the end of the study, the subjects predicted they would be sick of both. But in fact, they were not—the subjects actually grew to like the yogurt more.

Behavioral scientists continue to debate what’s behind this so-called diversification bias, the tendency to assume we’ll want more diversity in our lives than we actually do. Simonson suggests it’s a hedge against the possibility that our tastes will change and we’ll be stuck with a bunch of stuff we no longer like. Read and Loewenstein argue that it’s not so rational and that the bias springs from the limits of the cognitive shortcuts humans use. For example, we tend to contract time as we look toward the future: When we’re asked to think about what it would feel like to listen to the same song once a day for seven days, we actually imagine something closer to listening to it seven times straight.

For the music industry, these findings have different implications, depending on the business model. Music purveyors that rely on delivering ears to advertisers and need to get listeners to stay tuned in—i.e., traditional radio stations—would do well to stick with the megahits. The same would apply to free, ad-based streaming music services.

But Pandora and Google Play also rely, in part, on persuading listeners to pay for a premium version of their service. In that case, they might be better off highlighting the diversity of music they can offer. Users debating whether to make the jump to a premium version are imagining the way they’ll use the station and therefore assuming what they’ll want is a variegated cornucopia of musical choice. Even if, in the end, they end up just listening to Blurred Lines like everybody else.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.