Turns out all those times you wanted to listen to "Someone Like You" after a breakup are completely justified -- by research.
A new study forthcoming in the August 2013 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research explores why people often turn to sad or angry music after a negative experience, and the possible parallels between listening to those types of music and seeking support from a friend.
A research team led by Berkley PhD. student Chan Jean Lee recruited 233 participants online. One hundred and twenty-five participants were randomly assigned to a "friend" group, and the rest were placed in a "music" group.
Participants in the friend and music groups were asked what kind of friend or music, respectively, they would prefer in these 12 situations likely to provoke negative emotions:"When you..."
- Lost someone you love
- Lost someone close to you
- Lost someone significant
- Were disgusted by dirty objects
- Found a bug in your meal
- Saw disgusting objects
- Fell behind your competitors
- Were ashamed about your laziness
- Lost an important competition or contest
- Were ashamed about your bad decision/ performance
- Failed an exam/ promotion test
- Were ashamed of your selfishness
Participants in the music group could choose between sad songs and cheerful songs, and participant in the friend group could choose between "a funny friend who can help you get rid of your negative feelings" and "an empathetic friends who can share feelings with you."
The researchers found that when the negative situation involved another person -- as in a breakup, for instance -- participants strongly preferred an empathetic friend and sad music. Two further experiments confirmed that participants experiencing emotional distress related to other people were much more likely to prefer sad music than those experiencing distress from issues unrelated to other people. Just like you probably don't want to be surrounded by perky people when your heart is broken, you don't want to hear Selena Gomez telling you to "come and get it."
One question the study didn't address that the findings raise is whether listening to music actually helps reduce emotional distress.
A 2006 study found that patients who listened to music while undergoing radiation therapy reported lower anxiety than those who did not listen to music, and research from 2010 indicated that music therapy made a significant difference in psychiatric patients' symptoms. So it's conceivable that music helps ease heartache as well.
You can get back to that Adele playlist now, shame-free.