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Hearing aid: A brief look at ‘the world’s most addictive sounds’

Throughout my career I’ve carried out quite a lot of research into the marketing and advertising of gambling and the way in which some gambling operators use psychology to exploit our senses to maximize profit. Connected to this, I’ve also published a number of papers that have examined the role of sound (and particularly music) can influence the way in which individuals gamble (see my previous blog on this and ‘Further reading’ below).

The reason I mention this was that I recently came across an online article by Fast Company entitled ‘The 10 most addictive sounds in the world’ based on some market research carried out by Martin Lindstrom, the Danish ‘neuromarketeer’, author of the book Buyology – Truth and Lies About Why We Buy (I do love a good pun). Lindstrom is known for using neuroscientific techniques to help commercial operators better understand their clientele. One of his collaborations was with Elias Arts (a sound and music design company) who joined forces to examine the world’s most ‘addictive sounds’ in what an article in The Village Voice dubbed a “neuromarketing experiment”.

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Obviously, my interest was piqued when I saw the use of the word ‘addictive’ but their working definition of ‘addictive’ had nothing to do with individuals being addicted to sounds but simply referred to an individual’s response to specific sounds. (Even with this explanation, I still can’t see why the word ‘addictive’ was used but its’ use probably guarantees more people – like myself – will want to read about the study). Lindstrom told the media that:

“We have all those top 10s of everything, but most top 10s are based on the visual sense. What we realized in another study is the most prominent sense we have [when we see a commercial] is not the sense of sight or smell, but the sense of sound”.

As far as I can tell, the study Lindstrom carried out has not been formally published in a peer reviewed journal (although he has published academic papers). The study was described in the international media as involving 50 participants and the research team monitored their brainwave, pupil, and facial muscle activity while listening to 50 different everyday sounds (both man-made ‘branded’ sounds and those ‘non-branded’ sounds that occur naturally). Lindstrom concluded that the most ‘addictive sounds’ weren’t necessarily the non-branded sounds of nature because some of the commercial man-made branded sounds (described as “beeps, jingles and ditties”) were more ‘addictive’ than a number of familiar sounds found in everyday life.

Overall, sound of a baby giggling was ranked as the most ‘addictive sound’ (although I’ve not seen the specific methodology employed to ascertain how being the top ‘addictive sound’ was actually assessed. Apparently Lindstrom examined the “dimension of the responses” and the “contrast and balance of all three [brainwave, pupil and muscle] factors” – although he did admit that such factors can lead to both positive and negative reactions). The second and third spots were Intel’s computer startup chime and the sound of a vibrating mobile phone. Other top non-branded sounds were the sound of a sizzling steak and the lighting of a cigarette being inhaled. Lindstrom claimed that the participants “weren’t responding to the structures of the sounds, but what they mean in a greater social context”. In relation to what makes a sound ‘addictive’, Lindstrom did at least make one reference to a classic sign of addiction (i.e., craving):

“It’s not the sound itself, but the consequence of the sound. A laughing (or crying) baby elicits a maternal protection mechanism, a buzzing cell phone prompts a pick-up, a sizzling steak means a solid meal is on the way. For advertisers and consumers, the research indicates a whole new battleground of multi-sensory advertising. Sometimes the sound from one category generates a craving in another category. For example, given the links between tobacco and beverages, the sound of a cigarette being lit could be used in an ad for alcohol. Although sound is more intuitive for people, the field is still quite young. It will be a long time before it will be so prominent”.

In a story for ABC News, other academics were asked for their thoughts on Lindstrom’s study. One American ‘auditory neuroscientist, Professor Barbara Shinn-Cunningham (actually Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Boston University) said that:

“Although the sounds identified by the study are extremely meaningful, with the exception of the giggling baby, most are not inherently addictive. They’re identifiable. They brain responds to repetition. Our brains are good at picking out patterns that repeat. We’ve evolved to do that. If I chose an arbitrary sound, as long as it was clear and distinctive, and then played it 50 times a day for the next five years (as many of the branded sounds have been), it would become attention-grabbing. I don’t think [the sounds on the list are] so much addictive because of their acoustic properties, but because of their ubiquity. There is neurophysiological evidence showing that brain is hardwired to notice certain kinds of sounds. For example, the abrupt, jarring sound of a slamming door could prompt cells in a person’s brain stem to fire even before that person was conscious of it. For early humans, that kind of sound could have meant it’s time to run for the hills. [Also] studies have demonstrated the existence of a so-called ‘cocktail party effect’. At a party, if you hear your name in the background, even if you’re not paying attention, that’s something that will draw your attention involuntarily. Your brain is so exposed to your name and it’s tremendously important to you, so it encodes that so you respond to it”

According to Lindstrom’s research, the most ‘addictive sounds’ in the world (although they are arguably US-centric to say the least) are: (1) baby giggle, (2) Intel chime, (3) vibrating phone, (4) ATM/cash register, (5) National Geographic theme tune, (6) MTV theme tune, (7) T-Mobile ringtone, (8) McDonald’s jingle, (9) ‘Star Spangled Banner’ (tune), and (10) State Farm jingle.

The Fast Company article also noted that:

“Sound is immensely powerful. And yet 83% of all the advertising communication we’re exposed to daily (bearing in mind that we will see two million TV commercials in a single lifetime) focuses, almost exclusively, on the sense of sight. That leaves just 17% for the remaining four senses. Think about how much we rely on sound. It confirms a connection when dialing or texting on cell phones and alerts us to emergencies. When the sound was removed from slot machines in Las Vegas, revenue fell by 24%. Experiments undertaken in restaurants show that when slow music (slower than the rhythm of a heartbeat) is played, we eat slower–and we eat more!”.

These types of findings suggest that ‘audio branding’ is likely to be an increasing topic of academic research given that every company wants an edge in selling their product. While I am totally unconvinced that the word ‘addictive’ should be used in this type of research, that’s not to say that sound doesn’t have an influence in the development of addictive behaviour more generally. It looks like a case of watch (or should that be listen?) to this space.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK 

Further reading

Bark Soho (2016). 3 of the most addictive sounds in the world. October 16. Located at: http://www.barksoho.co.uk/blog/3-of-the-most-addictive-sounds-in-the-world/

Dixon, L., Trigg, R. & Griffiths, M. (2007). An empirical investigation of music and gambling behaviour. International Gambling Studies, 7, (3), 315-326.

Edroso, R. (2010). “Most addictive” sounds mostly jingles, machine noises. The Village Voice, February 22. located at: https://www.villagevoice.com/2010/02/22/most-addictive-sounds-mostly-jingles-machine-noises/

Fast Company (2010). The 10 most addictive sounds in the world. February 22. Located at: https://www.fastcompany.com/1555211/10-most-addictive-sounds-world

Griffiths, M.D. & Parke, J. (2003). The environmental psychology of gambling. In G. Reith (Ed), Gambling: Who wins? Who loses? pp. 277-292. New York: Prometheus Books.

Griffiths, M.D. & Parke, J. (2005). The psychology of music in gambling environments: an observational research note. Journal of Gambling Issues, 13.

Heussner, K.M. (2010). The world’s 10 most addictive sounds. ABC News, February 24. Located at: https://abcnews.go.com/Technology/worlds-10-addictive-sounds/story?id=9923506

Lindstrom, M. (2008). Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy. New York: Doubleday

Parke, J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2006). The psychology of the fruit machine: The role of structural characteristics re-visited.  International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 4, 151-179.

Parke, J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2007). The role of structural characteristics in gambling.  In G. Smith, D. Hodgins & R. Williams (Eds.), Research and Measurement Issues in Gambling Studies. pp.211-243. New York: Elsevier.

Spenwyn, J., Barrett, D.K.R. & Griffiths, M.D. (2010). The role of lights and music in gambling behavior: An empirical pilot study. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 8, 107-118.

Sell division: The use of technology in commercial marketing

Today’s blog is only loosely connected to the types of behaviour that I usually cover but relates to the issue of excessive technological use. However, rather than focusing on the individual, my article today focuses on corporate technological excess, and more specifically the seemingly excessive use of technological marketing. Technology continues to invade almost every area of our lives. Although the advantages of these technologies significantly outweigh the disadvantages, technology is increasingly being used in commercial settings that some citizen’s rights groups claim are exploitative, unethical, and border on the criminal.

Shopping loyalty cards are now an every day part of consumer behaviour. Most people probably don’t stop to think about the reasons behind their introduction but they have the potential to be exploitative. In short, loyalty cards track every purchase a consumer makes over a long period (often years) including the store shopped at, the date and time, and the price paid. The long tracking period allows for monitoring of trends in purchasing. Stores may also record the method of payment, whether the card was swiped or keyed into the till, and the checkout that was used. The supermarkets use these data to categorize customers. In addition to the data provided when the loyalty card was issued, commercial operators can draw conclusions from the address using sophisticated categorization systems. Many companies now use customer relationship marketing software to help make sense and synthesize the information gathered. Ever since they were introduced, underhand uses of loyalty cards have been mooted. As long ago as 1999, the UK Ministry of Agriculture suggested cross checking purchases of genetically modified food with health records, effectively making the cards part of a huge medical experiment. However, the supermarkets declined to take part.

It’s probably a fair assumption to make that the online population views the Internet as much a tool for information gathering and communication as for commercial transactions. The most powerful impacts are social rather than commercial. Just like the companies that run loyalty card schemes, Internet service providers can record when you logged on and off, how many seconds the connection lasted, and the Internet protocol address allocated during the session. They can also compile a detailed e-mail history. This can contain the header information from every e-mail received by the account in the period, the return address provided by the sender, the ISP from which the e-mail originated, the date and the time of the sending, an ID code, and the title of the e-mail. Most people have no idea how much potential there is for invasion of privacy.

There are some areas that are potentially more worrying than others. Take the case of online gambling (that I have covered in previous blogs relating to behavioural tracking). When it comes to gambling, there is a very fine line between providing what the customer wants and exploitation. The gaming industry now sells gambling in much the same way that any other business sells things. On joining Internet gambling sites, players supply lots of information including name, address, telephone number, date of birth, and gender. Internet gambling operators will know the player’s favourite game and the amounts they have wagered. Basically they can track the playing patterns of any gambler. They will know more about the gambler’s playing behaviour than the gamblers themselves. They will be able to send the gambler offers and redemption vouchers, complimentary accounts, etc. All of these things are introduced to supposedly enhance customer experience. Benefits and rewards to the customer include cash, food and beverages, entertainment and general retail. However, more unscrupulous operators are able to entice high spending gamblers (some of which will be problem gamblers) back onto their sites with tailored freebies (such as the inducement of ‘free’ bets and bonuses).

The Internet also appears to be a rapidly growing medium for child-oriented marketing with sites ranging from Pokemon and Barbie to Lego. These sites provide what appears to be a safe environment for children to play in online (and something my own children used to do). Today’s children are computer literate and the Internet empowers them to influence what they want for Christmas or their birthday. However, how ethical is it for businesses to use advertising to pitch to children – individuals who in most other spheres (e.g., voting, sex, legal documents) are treated as incapable of making decisions. Many claim the adverts carry a similar message (i.e., “If you haven’t got this product, you are abnormal”). The aim of most marketing is to sell goods, but adverts aimed at children are designed to get them to pressurize their peers and parents.

A number of years ago, the US Center for Media Education (CME) claimed that advertisers and marketeers exploit children by advertising products on the Internet in ways that manipulate children and violate their privacy. They urged the US Federal Trade Commission to develop safeguards for children and claimed that these advertisements would infringe American regulations that put safeguards on broadcast media like the television. They recommend that there should be no children’s content directly linked to advertising and that direct interaction between children, and that product spokescharacters (such as Kellogs ‘Tony the Tiger’) should not be allowed.

The CME claimed advertisers used a variety of online methods (such as ‘infomercials’) to collect detailed data and compile individual child profiles. This information they claimed, was used to establish direct and intimate relationships with children online. The CME claimed children’s privacy is routinely threatened to encourage children to disclose personal information about themselves and their families with some sites offering gifts and prizes. This technology makes it possible to monitor every interaction between the child and the advertisement allowing firms to create personalized marketing for a child. Again, questions need to be asked about how far advertisers can go and what protection vulnerable groups should have.

Other new technologies are also making an impact – often without the person’s knowledge. For instance, television set top boxes can monitor viewer activities. Those who operate set top boxes say they are doing it in order to develop personalized advertising. However, many claim that Internet video providers should not be able to track and sell information about what you viewers are watching in the privacy of your own home. Companies who use these systems claim they only keep anonymous viewing information. They also stress that their viewers can opt out of the data collection but the reality is that very few do. Perhaps the best way forward is to see the introduction of ‘opt-in’ rather than opt-out clauses.

Given the increasingly sophisticated technology on offer, companies have to do a lot of planning to get most out of their databases. There are two main sorts of database. The first type is a ‘flat file’ databases with information on them, set one after the other. The second type is a ‘relational database’ that can build relationships between different fields of information. For instance, if a company wanted to find a number of customers who had bought a particular product from them in the last month or sort their customers by their address, a flat file database could do those tasks individually whereas relational databases would do it simultaneously. The really creative part (and some might say potentially exploitative and unethical part) in database use starts when companies begin to look seriously at what the information can do for them. This is the stage when companies start to ask intelligent questions about the actual purpose of the information they have gathered.

Over the two decades, customer relationship management (CRM) has become integrated with database management. Companies offer insight into CRM processes that become available when information is managed electronically. Analytical CRM is geared towards understanding a series of interactions with customers over time in activity-based terms, with a view to understanding whether a given customer is profitable to the company and satisfied with the quality of that relationship. For this to work, the company needs in-depth detail on finance, human resources, distribution, and manufacturing so that they know exactly what a customer is costing them. Companies then know whether the customer is worth hanging on to. While the majority of companies may be using CRM for genuine customer enhancement, there are always those who are less scrupulous and may use such information to exploit.

Even a brief examination of how technology is being used in commercial situations demonstrates that the potential for exploitation of the customer is ever present and that such technologies should be monitored closely. Whether any of these practices will be seen as in some way criminal in the future remains to be seen.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Delfabbro, P.H., King, D.L & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Behavioural profiling of problem gamblers: A critical review. International Gambling Studies, 12, 349-366.

Griffiths, M.D. (2003). Exploitation and fraud on the Internet: Some common practices, The Criminal Lawyer, 132, 5-7.

Griffiths, M.D. (2003). Dot cons: Exploitation and Fraud on the Internet (Part 2). The Criminal Lawyer, 134, 3-5.

Griffiths, M.D. (2005).  Exploitative, unethical, criminal? The use of technology in commercial marketing. Justice of the Peace, 169, 916-917.

Griffiths, M.D. (2008). Digital impact, crossover technologies and gambling practices. Casino and Gaming International, 4(3), 37-42.

Griffiths, M.D. (2009). Social responsibility in gambling: The implications of real-time behavioural tracking. Casino and Gaming International, 5(3), 99-104.

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Social responsibility in marketing for online gaming affiliates. i-Gaming Business Affiliate, June/July, p.32.

Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Online behavioural tracking: Identifying problem gambling. World Online Gambling Law Report, 10(5), 10-11.

Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Responsible marketing and advertising of gambling. i-Gaming Business Affiliate, August/September, 50.

Griffiths, M.D. & Whitty, M.W. (2010). Online behavioural tracking in Internet gambling research: Ethical and methodological issues. International Journal of Internet Research Ethics, 3, 104-117.

Zangeneh, M., Griffiths, M.D. & Parke, J. (2008). The marketing of gambling. In Zangeneh, M., Blaszczynski, A., and Turner, N. (Eds.), In The Pursuit Of Winning (pp. 135-153). New York: Springer.

Trust is a must: The role of trust, personalization and context in online gambling

Until recently there appeared to be a commonly held perception that consumers viewed the Internet as an information gathering tool rather than a place to spend money. The explosive growth in online gambling shows this is no longer true. Historically, the two things that have had the power to drive any new consumer technology were pornography and gambling. These activities have helped satellite and cable television, video, and then the Internet. For me, the interesting question is how online gaming companies use as many ways as possible to get punters to log onto their website and how they are going to target new punters in the future.

Let’s look at it from an individual level. A gambler has logged on to the Internet and they are in the process of deciding which online gambling site to make a beeline for. What kinds of things influence their decision? A recommendation from one of their friends? Advice from a gambling magazine or player forum? An advert they saw online? From a psychological perspective, research on how and why people access particular commercial websites indicates that one of the most important factors is trust. If people know and trust the name, they are more likely to use that service. Reliability is also a related key factor. Research shows that some punters still have concerns about Internet security and may not be happy about putting their personal details online. But if there is a reliable offline branch like nearby (e.g., a Gala casino), it gives them an added sense of security and what I would call a “psychological safety net”. For some people, trust and security issues will continue to be important inhibitors of online gambling. Punters need assurance and compelling value propositions from trusted gaming operators to overcome these concerns.

One of the growth areas in e-commerce has been personalization and most online ventures now have a personalization strategy as part of its business plan. However, this practice is a double-edged sword that can prove to be a large logistical problem for some companies. Tracking every move for marketing purposes is one thing. Using these data for personalization purposes can prove troublesome. The amount of data is potentially enormous. Producing personalized pages for everyone is also logistically difficult and may even turn punters away. The key is knowing what to ask the punter. Online operators have to think intelligently and creatively about what to ask people who visit their sites in a way that the information gained can be used effectively. Attracting and providing customers with useful information relies on the gaming companies putting punters first.

Integration can also be a factor here. Online gambling companies are going to have to think of creative ways to make the gaming experience more personal and match it more closely to the real gaming experience something that has worked well for online poker sites. Companies may also need special pricing for online customers. Price is just one of the many considerations a gambler weighs up. It is more about a complete service than price alone (although in the gambling world, offering competitive odds and bonuses will obviously make websites attractive to gamblers).

One of the most important marketing strategies that online companies engage in is “imprinting” new customers. Online punters quickly adopt predictable Internet usage patterns and evidence suggests that they don’t switch online allegiances easily. Smart online gambling operators will work at becoming a starting point for the novice gambler and capitalize on this opportunity for capturing player loyalty. The emerging post-teenage market is a key consideration. There is a whole Internet generation coming through who have a positive outlook on online commercial activities. They may be happier to enter credit card details online and/or meet others online. This has the potential to lead to major changes in clientele as the profiles of these people will be radically different from previous punters. The problem is that the young don’t tend to have much disposable income and are less likely to own credit cards. Therefore, another market segment that those in the online gambling business will start to target are the over-50s who are starting to use the Internet for shopping and entertainment use. Early retirees have both time and money, which is why online companies will target the ‘grey’ pound, euro or dollar.

So what’s coming next? Contextual commerce may be one avenue that the online gaming affiliate industry uses more and more. In most retail outlets, shoppers notice what other people are buying and this may influence the purchaser’s choice. Companies are now working on software that allows customers to do this online including interacting with other shoppers. Seeing what everyone else is buying (or betting on) may again influence the decision process. There is also the potential to bring in techniques used on home television shopping channels. Presenters tell viewers how much of a product has been sold with viewers to instil a sense of urgency into the buying process, along with an element of peer review. This could be applied in some online gambling situations if people are gambling as part of a community such as online poker tournaments. I think it’s a case of ‘watch this space!’

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Griffiths, M.D. (2003). Internet gambling: Issues, concerns and recommendations. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 6, 557-568.

Griffiths, M.D. (2007). Brand psychology: Social acceptability and familiarity that breeds trust and loyalty. Casino and Gaming International, 3(3), 69-72.

Griffiths, M.D. (2008). Online trust and Internet gambling. World Online Gambling Law Report, 8(4), 14-16.

Wood, R.T.A.  & Griffiths. M.D. (2008). Why Swedish people play online poker and factors that can increase or decrease trust in poker websites: A qualitative investigation. Journal of Gambling Issues, 21, 80-97.

Zangeneh, M., Griffiths, M.D. & Parke, J. (2008). The marketing of gambling. In Zangeneh, M., Blaszczynski, A., and Turner, N. (Eds.), In The Pursuit Of Winning.  pp. 135-153. New York: Springer.

Online gambling, testimonials, and the psychology of persuasion

One of the most interesting psychological ploys used by some online gambling operators is the use of ‘bogus’ players and their testimonials. This appears to be a common practice used by some of the industry to generate hype about their sites. People are ‘disguised’ as unbiased players who then rave about particular online gambling sites in online player forums.

There has been a lot of psychological research under what circumstances information like this is taken on board or disregarded. There is a long established theory that has highlighted the most effective way of getting a message across. Most importantly, the information source needs to be credible (the important features of credibility being expertise and trustworthiness).

Identifying yourself as an “online gambler” means that you are more likely to treat someone else that is part of your ‘in group’ as trustworthy. Psychologists have highlighted that source credibility in this situation can be effective for two reasons. The first is that it leads to the processing of information in a half-mindless state – either because the person is not motivated to think, don’t have the time to consider, or lack the abilities to understand the issues. Secondly, source credibility can stop questioning (“if other punters think it’s a good site, then it must be alright”).

Psychological research has also shown that successful persuasive messages should be short, clear, direct and one-sided for receptive audiences. (Two-sided arguments should be used if the audience is likely to be unsympathetic to the message). The message must be explicit rather than letting the audience draw their own conclusions (although for informed audiences it can be equally, if not more effective, to draw their own conclusions).

Finally, the message should be colourful and vivid rather than full of technical terms and statistics. In short, the use of psychological research on communication to underpin marketing strategies, the online gaming industry generates mass emails and instant messages with typical claims like “I just found the greatest online casino on the Net. You should check it out “. Obviously if it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is.

Obviously online gambling companies are operating in a highly competitive market and almost every marketing tactic is employed to increase market share. However, the strategies used should be socially responsible and be fair to players. In the long run, online gamblers will give repeat business to those that they trust, and those companies are likely to be the ones who are the most socially responsible.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Cialdini, R. B. (2001). Influence: Science and practice (4th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon

Cialdini, R. B. (2001). The science of persuasion. Scientific American, 284, 76-81.

Griffiths, M.D. (2002). The marketing of Internet lottery gambling, Panorama (European State Lotteries and Toto Association), 10, 6-9.

Griffiths, M.D. (2003). Internet gambling: Issues, concerns and recommendations. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 6, 557-568.

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Social responsibility and trust in online gambling: Six steps to success. i-Gaming Business, 61, 36-37.

Griffiths, M.D. & Wood, R.T.A. (2001). The psychology of lottery gambling. International Gambling Studies, 1, 27-44.

Griffiths, M.D. & Wood, R.T.A. (2008). Responsible gaming and best practice: How can academics help? Casino and Gaming International, 4(1), 107-112.