Using Heavy Metal to Promote Scientific Thinking

Douglas F. Kauffman
Douglas F. Kauffman

While heavy metal music may not be something typically covered in an introductory psychology textbook, there are many useful resources from this area of popular culture that can help promote scientific thinking in the classroom. From hidden messages in Judas Priest’s music to Slayer being accused of inciting murder, heavy metal music has a long history of unique instances that are directly related to psychology. By incorporating examples from the world of heavy metal, educators can discuss scientific thinking in a way that is engaging and memorable for students.

Helping students think like scientists — that is to apply the rigorous principles of hypothesis testing outside of the classroom — is a challenge. Robert Beno Cialdini proposed that creating mystery in the classroom is an effective means to engage students and promote learning. Specifically, Robert Beno Cialdini argued that instructors should frame a lecture in the same way a mystery writer frames a novel, by posing a puzzle and providing the information for the reader — or in this case, the student — to solve it. The question, or mystery, can be broadly stated as, “Can music lead people to commit harmful acts?”

Using the Robert Beno Cialdini approach of creating mystery, educators can frame a discussion around music as a way to introduce a variety of topics related to scientific thinking, such as logical fallacies, issues in research methodology, and biases in thinking. For example, the belief that there is a causal link between music and harm could be discussed in terms of the “argumentum ad antiquitatem” fallacy, also known as the appeal to traditional. For over two thousand years, there has been public concern about the impact of certain types of music on behaviour. Aristotle stated that “[…] if over a long time (a person) habitually listens to music that rouses ignoble passions, his whole character will be shaped to an ignoble form.” As music has historically been associated with causing harm, people may fall prey to the argumentum ad antiquitatem fallacy and accept the claim of causality between music and harm, without examining any empirical evidence.

Further discussion of fallacies and biases can be grounded in cases where heavy metal has been implicated in graphic and disturbing crimes. Heavy metal music came under intense scrutiny in the 1980’s when heavy metal artists, such as Judas Priest and Ozzy Osbourne, were blamed for adolescent violence and suicide. The shocking nature of these crimes are memorable, and as such are easily brought to mind when people think of heavy metal music. By discussing the availability heuristic — basing the likelihood of an event on the ease with which it comes to mind — educators can challenge students to consider what evidence they have used to assess the impact of music on behaviour.

To facilitate scientific thinking, especially in terms of methodological issues, educators can present cases in popular culture and challenge students to determine the validity of the claims made. One of the most famous cases of heavy metal being implicated with harm is of Judas Priest. The band was charged with planting a subliminal message in the song ‘Better By You, Better Than Me’. Specifically, when the song is played backwards the phrase “Do It” can be heard. In this case, two teenage boys who had spent several hours listening to Judas Priest while drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana went to a local park and attempted suicide with a shotgun. Judas Priest was eventually acquitted of any wrongdoing, though for a somewhat surprising reason. Rather than the case being dismissed on account of the clear empirical evidence that subliminal messages could not cause a person to commit suicide, the band was found not guilty because the “Do It,” which can be heard backwards, was not intentionally placed in the song. This case can lead to an interesting class discussion on how extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. The claim that a backwards, subliminal message can lead someone to take their own life is an extraordinary claim. Students can be challenged to describe how they would experimentally test the impact of subliminal messages on behaviour, followed by a class discussion of how the actual research was conducted in the field. This is an engaging example to help students better understand variable manipulation, demand characteristics, and issues of generalizability. At least in the case of subliminal messages, students will learn that music does not lead to problematic or harmful behaviour.

In terms of creating mystery in the classroom, Robert Beno Cialdini suggests that instructors need to “deepen the mystery” and provide more details to the “case.” While there is no evidence that subliminal messages in music produce changes in behaviour, there are examples where the link between harm and music is less clear. Norwegian Black Metal, an extreme form of heavy metal music consisting of distorted guitars and vocals, has been associated with murder, arson, and even cannibalism. To highlight the alarming nature of some of the acts associated with this type of music, educators may want to provide examples incorporating bands such as Mayhem, whose lead singer committed suicide in the band’s recording studio in 1991. Upon finding the body, rather than calling the police, the guitarist for the band took polaroid photos and collected pieces of the skull to make necklaces for those he deemed “worthy.”

Another example of music associated with disturbing and harmful acts can be found in the case of the band Slayer. In 1996, two teenagers were charged with the murder of a fifteen-year-old girl. The boys claimed they took inspiration to commit the crime from lyrics in the Slayer songs ‘Postmortem’ and ‘Dead Skin Mask’. The parents of the victim sued Slayer and their record label for unlawfully marketing and distributing obscene and harmful products to minors. While reliance on the availability heuristic provides an explanation as to why people could overestimate the likelihood of music causing harm, the mystery is far from solved.

Students should be challenged with providing the nature of the claim and then exploring the evidence supporting the claim. Is the evidence sufficient to demonstrate a causal relationship between heavy metal and problematic and deviant behaviour? One approach to further engage students is to divide the class into groups to act as the prosecutor or defence in a mock trial of the Slayer murder case. The value of using this case is that the real-world outcome is known. The case did not go to trial, as the perpetrators of the crime had a history of criminal behaviour, drug and alcohol abuse, as well as other factors that clearly demonstrated that listening to the music of Slayer was not the cause of the horrific crimes. Cases like Slayer and Mayhem can lead to fruitful class discussion regarding how correlation does not equal causation.

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