If you’re trying to follow a healthier diet and/or lose weight, you may want to avoid noisy restaurants when you eat out.
According to a recent study, the volume of background music played in a restaurant affects the types of food people order. The louder the music, the more likely people are to opt for greasy, calorie-laden cheeseburgers and fries rather than salads.
Plenty of other studies have shown that ambient music can influence people’s perceptions of food. Researchers have reported, for example, that people rate the bitterness or sweetness of foods — or even the quality of a wine — differently, depending on the type of music playing in the background while they’re making those evaluations.
But this new study, which was published in the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Sciences, is apparently the first one examine how the volume of background music impacts the in-the-moment choices people make between healthy and unhealthy foods.
For the study, a team of American and Swedish researchers, led by Dipayan Biswas, a marketing professor at the University of South Florida, conducted a series of experiments. Some were done in a controlled laboratory setting; others were done “in the field” (in a restaurant).
In one of the experiments, conducted over several days in a café in Sweden, various genres of music were played in a continuous loop at either 55 decibels (similar to the noise made by two people having a conversation at home) or at 70 decibels (similar to the noise made by a vacuum cleaner). The experiment revealed that orders of unhealthy food were 20 percent higher when the background music was at the higher decibel level.
Specifically, when the café’s music was loud, 52 percent of the orders placed by its patrons were for unhealthful foods, compared to 42 percent when the volume was low. Fewer people also selected healthful foods when the noise level was high — 25 percent compared to 32 percent when the music was quieter. (Some of the food was deemed “neutral” in terms of healthfulness.)
In another of the experiments — this time conducted in a lab — 97 students were presented with a choice of chocolate cake or fruit salad while listening to classical piano music played at either 70 decibels or at 50 decibels. In the low-volume setting, 83 percent of the students selected the fruit salad. But in the high-volume setting, only 54 percent made that healthier choice.
Interestingly, however, when students were asked to do a “relaxation exercise” before ordering their food (to take a moment to think back on a time when they were very relaxed), no difference in healthful-versus-unhealthful food choices was observed. About 80 percent of those in both the high-volume and in the low-volume settings selected the fruit salad.
“The effects of music volume on consumers’ food choices seem to be driven by relaxation induced with low volume music as evidenced by the moderating effect of induced relaxation,” the study’s authors write.
Limitations and implications
This study comes with caveats, of course. Many of the experiments involved a relatively small number of participants. Also, although the researchers kept the music’s characteristics (such as pitch and tempo) constant within each experiment, varying only the volume, it’s possible that other characteristics of the music might have moderated the impact of the volume on people’s food choices.
Still, the study’s findings support plenty of other research that has found that subconscious cues — including background music — can be used to influence consumers’ choices, including their purchases of food.
“Our findings [are] important for consumers since they suggest that one way to resist the temptation of unhealthy foods at restaurants/stores with high volume music might be to try to relax while making choices and purchases,” the study’s authors conclude.
“Alternatively, consumers might opt to shop and dine in retail settings that have lower volumes of ambient music and noise,” they add.
Hmmm. Easier said than done.
FMI: You’ll find an abstract of the study on the website for the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Sciences, but the full study is behind a paywall.