Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
A new study suggests that auditory signs of life can ease discomfort in hair-raising places.
When you’re hightailing it down a darkened city block, weaving between streetlights, you might feel your heart pound in your throat, your face start to flush, or a tingle shoot down your spine. Eerie sounds—the startling rustle of a plastic bag, or the lonely wail of a far-away siren—only add to an elaborate worst-case scenario that’s unfolding, unconsciously, in your body.
Even if you know, rationally, that there’s no need to be unusually vigilant, your autonomic nervous system—the fear center—can steer you towards panic.
What if calming down were as simple as listening to a soundtrack of some chirpy robins or cooing morning doves? In a new study, forthcoming in the International Journal of Research in Marketing, researchers aimed to tease out how various ambient sounds may affect the perception of security.
The study was conducted in the field—in this case, an underground parking deck near Paris’s Champs-Élysées—and in a simulated metro station environment inside a lab.
Participants listened to amplified classical instrumental music, bird songs, human vocalizations, or no engineered soundtrack. Researchers concluded that both bird calls and human vocalizations—reassuring signs of life that the authors described as cues of a “social presence”—made participants feel less uneasy. Those participants were also more likely to indicate that they’d buy a monthly pass to use the metro station.
The sounds’ timbre and pitch are important considerations; for instance, a guttural growl might be scarier than no sound at all. “We were careful not to say that every single human sound would make people feel safer,” says Aradhna Krishna, director of the Sensory Marketing Laboratory at the University of Michigan, one of the study’s authors. “We chose ones that were non-threatening in the first place.” Listeners were easily able to identify pacifying sounds: “We got 100 percent consistency on non-threatening sounds,” Krishna adds.
Of course, not all fear is bad. Sometimes, those goosebumps encourage us to avoid a seedy situation before we can even articulate our discomfort. In those cases, we shouldn’t blast nature sounds to try and dissuade ourselves from listening to our instincts, says Krishna. In a press release, Krishna urged people “to not use ambient sounds to give a false sense of security when places are actually unsafe.” (The researchers referenced crime statistics as a way to gauge an area’s relative safety.)
Krishna hopes that this “social presence” could even have a preventative effect. She wonders if the perception of human or animal life—of a richly populated and textured surrounding—could deter would-be criminals. “Maybe it could decrease crime,” she says. “We’re hoping.”