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When restaurant music is loud, diners are more likely to order unhealthful foods, study suggests

Photo by MicBima on Unsplash
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.

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.

Study details

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. 

Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by David Markle on 06/21/2018 - 11:46 am.

    Interesting, and

    the loud music is itself unhealthful: it not only damages hearing, it’s a barrier to sociability.

  2. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 06/21/2018 - 12:46 pm.

    Loud Noise, and the Metrodome

    In the late 70’s we were told that a domed stadium would be great for the Twins. That family from Moorhead could come down to the Cities and see a ball game for sure, rain or shine. What was missed was that the dome also guaranteed that we would never see a game in the sunshine, and a major part of the experience of seeing a big league ball game was lost. In the rush to build a dome, no one figured out how many tickets would not be sold on beautiful 75 degree evenings.

    I suspect it’s the same with noisy restaurants and the supposed increase in drink sales and table turnover. Is anyone counting the revenue lost due to some diners just not showing up or going somewhere quieter?

    The article doesn’t mention tap rooms, but they are just as guilty. I might pop in for a pint on the way home from work on Friday afternoon, when it’s quiet. But most likely not on Saturday night when I have to shout for my bride to hear me.

    • Submitted by Alan Straka on 06/21/2018 - 03:06 pm.

      Exactly

      I have to agree. I have turned around and walked out of several restaurants because the music is too loud. It just ruins the whole dining experience.

    • Submitted by Elisa Wright on 06/29/2018 - 01:32 pm.

      Not showing up

      There is a microbrewery about four blocks from where I live. I’ve never been a big beer drinker, but I swear their dark dark hoppy beer has magical healing properties. I rarely go there though because it is so loud.

      I know staring at your phone during dinner is supposed to be rude, but what are you supposed to do when it is so loud you have to yell across the table to have a conversation?

  3. Submitted by Garth Taylor on 06/22/2018 - 06:33 am.

    Applies to Other Noise Too

    What about when you take a seat at a quiet table, and then have a party of 6 or 8 braying donkeys on a sales meeting or a birthday party be seated alongside. The noise generated by a table of millenials shouting their opinions can easily exceed 70 decibels. I always request a quiet table. The maitre d’ says they will do their best but can’t guarantee anything. When their absence of problem ownership fails and the sound of happy realtors at the next table becomes overwhelming, I just leave. Sooner or later there will be Quiet Food restaurants — where people who want to hear what is said at the table dip into their retirement income for an audible repast of healthy food.

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