Wednesday, 25 November 2015

The Science Behind Why Everyone Likes Adele

Adele’s first album in four years is set to break records during its first week in release. At a time when “people don’t buy albums,” 25 is on track to sell at least 2.5 million copies—and might even crack 3 million. For reference, Justin Bieber’s “Purpose” (the year’s previous biggest debut) sold 522,000 units in a week, while Adele pushed 900,000 copies of “25” in a day. The all-time-best sales week belongs to *NSYNC’s “No Strings Attached,” which boasts an untouched 2.41 million copies 14 years ago.

The universal adoration of Adele has brought together the kinds of people who could never normally agree on anything, so much so that this weekend’s “Saturday Night Live” cheekily suggested that it could keep your family together—or at least from squabbling—during Thanksgiving. While Adele’s appeal amongst older women has long been cited as the key to her success, science shows that our love of pop music’s most transcendently somber chanteuse is hard-wired into our DNA. Adele demonstrates not only the power of sad music but of an emotion even greater than the blues: empathy.

Although Aristotle once suggested that great art offers the pull of catharsis—purging us of unwanted emotions—recent research has offered a different perspective of how our brains respond to sad music. In the New York Times, researchers Ai Kawakami discussed his team’s findings (published in the Frontiers in Psychology journal) in 2013 that music imbued with heartache, tragedy, and suffering evokes different feelings in the listener. Instead of feeling exactly what Sinead O’Connor feels when we listen to “Nothing Compares 2 U,” Kakawami found that the song evokes “vicarious emotions.”

What exactly does that mean to feel vicariously? “Here, there is no object or situation that induces emotion directly, as in regular life,” Kawakami writes. “Instead, the vicarious emotions are free from the essential unpleasantness of their genuine counterparts, while still drawing force from the similarity between the two.”

That definition might seem to be obtuse, but there’s a simpler one. Vicarious emotion is strikingly similar to how philosopher and economist Adam Smith defined empathy—which he called “fellow feeling”—in his essay, “The Theory of Moral Sentiments”: “changing places in fancy with the sufferer.” Indeed, another study from the Free University of Berlin’s Liila Taruffi and Stefan Koelsch found that people who are drawn to, experience, and identify with the emotions of others have a strong connection to sad music.

That process is deeply rooted in the process of evolution itself. Like “father of the free market” primatologist Frans de Waal (known for his groundbreaking work on chimpanzee social dynamics) argued, feeling what others feel was a selected genetic trait that helped humans survive in a harsh environment. “First, like every mammal, we need to be sensitive to the needs of our offspring,” de Waal wrote. “Second, our species depends on cooperation, which means that we do better if we are surrounded by healthy, capable group mates. Taking care of them is just a matter of enlightened self-interest.”

These same traits can be witnessed in other species. In a groundbreaking 1964 experiment published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, Jules H. Masserman helped pioneer the idea of altruism in primates. His team of researchers found that rhesus monkeys given a choice of pulling a chain to feed themselves and shocking another money or going hungry would rather starve themselves than see a member of their in-group harmed. Primates can even feel empathy for those outside their own species: In 1923, Robert Yerkes psychology Robert Yerkes reported that one of the bonobos he worked with grew a particular attachment to an ailing chimp.

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