Endless loops of “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” or any tinsel-y tune can have a psychological impact known as the ‘mere exposure effect,’ says Victoria Williamson, Ph.D, who conducts research on the psychology of music at Goldsmiths, University of London. There’s a U-shaped relationship between the amount of times we hear music that we like and our subsequent reaction to it, she says.
As Williamson puts it, at first we like music a bit, then we like it more and more until it hits a peak. And then we crash down — we have overheard it. That’s when boredom and annoyance at the repetition of the same sound hits home. “Anyone who has worked in a Christmas store over the holidays will know what I’m talking about,” Williamson says. When asked why holiday music seems to have a polarizing effect, driving some people crazy while others like, or at least, can tolerate it, Williamson suggests that music’s effect on us in any situation depends on our own psychological state.
People who are already stressed out about the holidays — worrying about money, traveling, or seeing relatives — may find the musical reminder of the cause of their stress very unwelcome, she says. But those who approach the holidays in a receptive, relaxed state are more likely to get a boost from the happy associations — childhood memories, family gatherings, or the holiday’s religious meaning — triggered by holiday music.
Of course, the reason Christmas music is played in every department store, supermarket from Thanksgiving through December. Music can put us in the mood to spend money, research suggests.
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