Do Protest Songs Actually Affect People’s Attitudes about War and Peace?
Can protest songs affect the way we feel about war and how we view “us” versus “them” in political conflict? If so, that would be very helpful because political conflicts tend to leave people with a sense that there is a clear-cut division between “us” and “them.” Furthermore, members of each group tend to consider their own group as moral and just, whereas the other is seen as dangerous and evil. The stronger the conflict and our identification with our group, the more likely we are to feel love and pride for our own group but fear and hatred towards the other side.
Peace and protest movements often aim to encourage people to question the prevailing outlook regarding ongoing conflicts and suggest an alternative of peaceful alliance of all social and political groups. One way that they do this is through songs. Through a combination of music, which evokes emotion, and lyrics, which present the message, protest songs aim to motivate people to take action by changing the way we feel about the division between “us” and “them.”
This musical attempt at persuasion can take at least two forms. Pro-peace songs aim to promote positive emotions toward the rival group. For example, the lyrics for Imagine, by John Lennon, urge listeners to “Imagine all the people living life in peace” and “Imagine there’s no countries.” This kind of song focuses on commonalities between the groups, basically saying we are all connected. They present an optimistic message about the possibility of peace.
The second kind of protest song is explicitly anti-war, which aims to promote negative feelings about war. For example, the 1960’s hit, War, written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong includes the lyrics: “War! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!” This kind of song focuses on the negative aspects of war and often criticizes the aggressive actions of our own group.
In my research on protest songs, I examined two questions: Do these two types of songs evoke different emotions toward “us” and “them,” and if so, which one is more effective in promoting empathy toward the ”them” and guilt regarding any negative actions by “us.”
The studies were conducted in Israel, a country involved in a long-lasting conflict between the Jewish majority and the Palestinian population on the west banks and Gaza. In two studies, participants listened to either pro-peace or anti-war Israeli protest songs. Then they rated their emotions in response to the songs, as well as their emotions toward the two groups. Participants also indicated their political orientation (right or left wing).
Not surprisingly, the pro-peace songs evoked more positive emotions, such as hope and happiness, than the anti-war songs, which evoked more sadness, anxiety, and despair.
However, only the negative emotions – evoked by the anti-war songs –were related to empathy toward the outgroup and guilt toward the ingroup. In other words, although the peace songs made people feel good, only the anti-war songs led them to let down the emotional barriers between “us” and “them.”
A third study, which presented participants with songs’ lyrics alone, showed that without music, experiencing negative emotions was not associated with feelings of empathy and guilt.
Although the studies only used a few songs and referred to only one type of conflict, the findings suggest that anti-war songs may be more effective in changing people’s views of conflict and the possibility of attaining resolution than pro-peace songs. Moreover, this message is more persuasive when combined with music.
Of course, music alone can’t change the world and bring peace all by itself. However, this research does suggest that songs may inspire some change in political movements. But it seems that the negative message of “War” may be more persuasive than the positive aspirations of “Imagine.”
For Further Reading
Ziv, N. (2019). Pro-peace or anti-war: the effect of emotions primed by protest songs on emotions toward in-group and out-group in conflict. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 49(12), 778-795.
Bar-Tal, D., Raviv, A., Raviv, A., & Dgani-Hirsh, A. (2009). The influence of the ethos of conflict on Israeli Jews’ interpretation of Jewish-Palestinian encounters. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 53(1), 94-118. Doi: 10.1177/0022002708325942
Harwood, J. (2017). Music and intergroup relations: Exacerbating conflict and building harmony through music. Review of Communication Research, 5, 1-34.
Naomi Ziv is a senior lecturer in psychology at the College of Management – Academic Studies in Rishon Le Zion, Israel