All Ears

The persuasive power of headphones

A guitarist being driven on a pedal cart followed by people on bikes wearing headphones.
A concert on wheels, where live music is transmitted from the musician to the headphones of cycling guests.

Americans spend an average of four hours per day listening to audio on either headphones or speakers—but there are major differences in the psychological effects between the two media. Headphones have a more powerful impact on listeners’ perceptions, judgments, and behaviors, a new study reveals.

“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,” says Associate Professor Juliana Schroeder, a co-author.

The findings in the research from Berkeley Haas, UC San Diego’s Rady School of Management, and UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, which are published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, are replicated in five different studies that included both fieldwork and surveys with more than 4,000 participants.

“We find that headphones produce a phenomenon called in-head localization, which makes the speaker sound as if they’re inside your head,” says co-author On Amir, professor at the Rady School of Management. “Listeners perceive the communicator as closer—both physically and socially.” They also perceive the communicator as warmer. “They feel and behave more empathically toward them, and they are more easily persuaded by them,” he says.

Alicea Lieberman, an assistant professor at the Anderson School of Management, recommends choosing a content platform based on intended closeness. Public service announcements, for example, would be best on a program often consumed via headphones, like podcasts. “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.”

Auditory media is an integral part of the workday—even more so with remote work. In 2018, $87.6 billion was spent on industry trainings, with 69% involving either virtual classroom/webcasting or video broadcasting.

Amir suggests that companies could send employees headphones to encourage their use in phone conversations, to potentially increase collaboration. “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,” he says.