Psychology 203

Calgary, Alberta, Canada
We are the Peer Mentors of Psychology 203: Psychology for Everyday Living at the University of Calgary. We will be sharing our thoughts about popular myths in psychology as they relate to each class.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Popular Myths in Psychology

Myths about Development

Myth: From Baby Mozart to Baby Genius: Does playing Mozart's Music to Infants Boost Their Intelligence?

by Kat Nipcon

There are few qualities in North American culture that are more prized than intelligence. Over the last few decades it has become increasingly popular for parents to employ various tricks to give their young offspring a competitive edge. Due to influences from the popular media and pseudo-science, many parents have tried to boost their babies IQ in hopes of giving them a better start in life.

One method of supposedly boosting an infant's IQ, has been a widely-popularized phenomena refereed to as the Mozart Effect. Follow this link for details:

It all started in 1993 with the publication of a paper on the effects of Mozart's music, in one of the most prestigious science journals, Nature. The paper itself investigated the effects of listening to various types of sound (Mozart, a relaxation tape or silence) on the performance of collage students on a spatial reasoning task. Check out this link to see what this type of task looks like and try it on your own:

The researchers found that those students who listened to only 10 minutes of Mozart's music, showed a significant improvement on a spatial reasoning task. This immediate effect translated into an increase of about 8 to 9 IQ points... You may think that this sounds great...but how does this lead to an assumption that Mozart's music increases IQ in babies?

The original study did not in fact imply anything about permanently raising IQ. It did not even claim that listening to Mozart's music results in long-term enhancement of spatial ability. Neither did the study make any claims about the effects of classical music of abilities of infants. After all, the study was done on a group of collage students, not babies.
These facts did not stop the popular media and toy companies from making the Mozart Effect the next big thing. By 2003, the Mozart Effect CDs had sold over two million copies.

One may ask: How is it that more people did not question the validity of the Mozart Effect?
For one thing: clever marketing to receptive parents explains the vast success of the Mozart Effect products. Another reason is that many people often tend to confuse correlation and causation. For example, studies have shown that there is a positive association between musical talent and intelligence. What that means, is that there is a direct relationship between these two variables, in that as one increases, the other one also increases. Yet, a correlation does not imply that musical talent causes a rise in intelligence, or vice versa. All it means is that these two variables tend to occur together.

In case of the Mozart Effect, toy companies and the media made an erroneous leap from the correlational findings of one study to a conclusion that exposure to Mozart's music raises IQ in infants. Moreover,the claims pertaining to the Mozart Effect became even more exaggerated and distorted over time. All the media attention given to this phenomena affected the public perceptions. According to survey data, by 2004 over 80% of Americans were familiar with the Mozart Effect. A 2003 survey of introductory psychology students revealed that over 73% of them firmly believed that listening to Mozart's music does in fact increase IQ. A few years ago, the coach of a New York Jets Football team tried to increase performance of the players by playing Mozart's music during practice sessions. Some colleges in the states implemented special Mozart Effect study rooms. The public craze over the Mozart effect reached its peak  when Georgia Governor Zell Miller increased the state budget by $105,000 to ensure that each newborn baby will receive a copy of a Mozart CD. Other politicians in the U.S joined the mission to boost the nations IQ.

So is anything about the Mozart Effect real,or is it all clever marketing?

Actually,some of the more recent studies found an alternative explanation for the Mozart Effect: short-term arousal. A study by Jones et al (2006) found that an increase in performance on mentally demanding tasks can be achieved through anything that increases one's alertness. Thus, listening to Mozart's music may cause short-term increase in performance in this manner, but we are likely to obtain the exact same effect by drinking a cup of coffee. So, the Mozart Effect is "real" in a sense that  listening to music causes temporary arousal which in turn increases one's immediate performance. Yet, it is important for us to remember that this effect is only temporary and it is not exclusive to Mozart's music. Nor does it result in increase in anybody's intelligence, including that of babies.

You may think that there is nothing wrong with playing classical music to babies, and you are right. Even if it doesn't magically make them into infant-prodigies, it certainly will have not have negative effects. The only potential downside is the frustration of "ambitious" parents at finding that such miracle products do not work. Thus, the one thing to learn from this story is the importance of being an educated consumer.


  1. Psychology 203 Challenge: Play Mozart when studying for your next exam. Review your grades after to see if you do better when listening to background classical music.

  2. Does this only apply to classical music? Would listening to other non-classical musical trigger the same short term effect?

  3. I believe that current research claims that anything that can temporarily increase arousal of the central nervous system,can produce a "mozart effect".So,anything that will make you feel more alert:coffee,a cold shower,or any type of music,will produce that short-term effect.Classical music may be particularily good to study with,in my experience,but we all have our own preferences :)