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Headphones have a powerfully persuasive effect on listeners

Experts at UC San Diego have demonstrated that there are major differences in the psychological effects of listening to audio through headphones or speakers. According to the researchers, headphones have a much more powerful influence on the perception and behavior of the listener. 

The average American spends about four hours per day listening to audio. Understanding which mediums are the most effective in delivering content could be very useful for advertising campaigns or remote work and training programs.

“We find that headphones produce a phenomenon called in-head localization, which makes the speaker sound as if they’re inside your head,” said study co-author Professor On Amir.

“Consequently, listeners perceive the communicators as closer – both physically and socially. As a result, listeners perceive the communicator as warmer, they feel and behave more empathically toward them and they are more easily persuaded by them.”

A new research paper combines the findings of five different studies from UC San Diego’s Rady School, UCLA and UC Berkeley. The studies involved fieldwork and online surveys with more than 4,000 participants. The collective results show that headphones make listeners feel closer to the speaker, induce feelings of empathy, and have an overall more persuasive effect that promotes action. 

“If the aim is to have listeners feel close to the communicator, or be particularly persuaded by their message, such as in a public service announcement, managers should consider placing their advertisement or message on a program often consumed via headphones, like a podcast,” said UCLA Professor Alicea Lieberman.

“On the other hand, if a message does not require listeners to experience any feelings of closeness to the communicator, then where the message is placed (e.g., podcast vs. talk radio) would be less essential.”

In one experiment, listeners were presented with a tragic example of the dangers of texting while driving. After the presentation, participants who used headphones expressed that texting while driving was more dangerous and caused more deaths than those who listened to the same message through speakers.

In another experiment, participants were randomly assigned to listen to audio either on headphones or on speakers as a mother and daughter described what it is like to be homeless. Headphone listeners expressed more empathy toward the speakers, and felt that the mother and daughter came across as more genuine compared to people who listened to the story on speakers.

In a field study conducted on the UC San Diego campus, researchers set out to examine how headphones and speakers may influence behavior. Random people were presented with a segment of a podcast, and then were given the opportunity to write a letter in support of nominating the speaker for an award. Those who listened to the podcast via headphones were much more likely to write an award nomination letter.

“Organizations may consider this research when designing their trainings or webinars,” said Professor Juliana Schroeder of UC Berkeley. “For example, managers might encourage employees to listen to safety trainings or webinars using headphones, which may more effectively change their attitudes and behaviors, compared to listening via speakers.”

According to Professor Amir, companies could send employees headphones to encourage their use in phone conversations, as the medium could increase collaboration, especially in the era of remote work.

“Clearly, our research suggests that influencers, bloggers and podcasters want to try to make sure that people listen by headphones because that creates that attachment,” said Professor Amir. “Our research proposes that it is not only what or whom people hear that influences their judgments, decisions and behaviors, but also how they hear the message.”

The research is published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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