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We are more influenced by media consumed through headphones than speakers, study finds

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People are impacted more by media they listen to with headphones than with a loudspeaker, new research has discovered.

The study by scientists at the University of California San Diego assessed whether the way people consume audio-visual information influences their perceptions and behaviours. It found that those who listened through headphones showed greater emotional responses and were more influenced by what they heard.

Experts carried out five studies, including experiments and online surveys involving more than 4,000 participants. In one experiment, 1,310 adults listened to a conversation between a mother and daughter talking about being homeless through headphones or speakers.

When comparing the response, researchers found that those who listened using headphones felt more empathy for the pair and were more likely to believe that their story was genuine.

In another test, 800 adults were asked to listen to a woman describe how her parents had died in a car crash after being struck by a distracted driver, again through headphones or a speaker. The woman in the audio clip warned people about the dangers of texting while driving.

Those who had listened through headphones were more likely to report that texting while driving was dangerous and caused more deaths.

Co-author of the study, Professor On Amir, said it is likely to be caused by a phenomenon called “in-head localisation” which gives the illusion that the speaker in the audio clip sounds as if they are inside the listener’s head.

“Listeners perceive the communicators as closer – both physically and socially,” he said. “As a result, listeners perceive the communicator as warmer, they feel and behave more empathically toward them and they are more easily persuaded by them.”

Researchers also studied whether listening to information through headphones could influence behaviour. Participants were played a podcast segment in which a speaker received an award.

Listeners were asked to write a letter in support of the speaker’s achievement or to sign up and learn more about the speaker’s company. Those who had listened to the podcast through headphones were “significantly more” likely to write a letter or sign up, the study found.

Dr Alicea Lieberman, a co-author of the study, said the findings show that people are more likely to be persuaded by a message such as a public service announcement if it is in a medium that is more likely consumed via headphones.

“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 would be less essential,” she said.

Co-author Juliana Schroeder said companies could also use the research when designing training or webinars. “For example, managers might encourage employees to listen to safety trainings or webinars using headphones, which may more effectively change their attitudes and behaviours, compared to listening via speakers,” the professor of management at the University of California, Berkeley, said.

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