Americans listen to audio on average for four hours per day, using either headphones or speakers. However, there are significant psychological differences between the two media. A new study has shown that headphones have a stronger impact on listeners’ perceptions of sound, judgements, and behavior. This is a significant finding that could have major implications for advertising, remote work, and training programs.
According to On Amir (a professor of marketing at University of California San Diego Rady School of Management), headphones cause a phenomenon known as in-head localization. This makes the speaker sound like they are inside your head. Listeners perceive communicators to be closer, both physically and socially. Listeners feel more connected to communicators, are more open to them, and are easier to persuade.
Five studies with over 4,000 participants replicate the findings of the Rady School at UC San Diego, UCLA and UC Berkeley. The paper is published in the Organizational Behavior & Human Decision Processes. It includes all of the studies that showed headphone listeners felt closer to the speaker while others examined the medium’s effects on empathy and persuasion.
One experiment used Amazon Mechanical Turk to survey 1,310 adults. They listened to a clip in which a mother-daughter couple talked about being homeless. Randomly, participants were assigned to either listen to the audio on headphones or speakers. Participants who listened with headphones felt more empathy for the speakers, and the mother and her daughter seemed more real than those who listened on speakers.
Another online survey was completed by more than 800 adults. It tested the persuasiveness of speakers. Participants had to hear a clip from a speaker about how her parents were tragically killed in a car accident when they were hit by a distracted driver. The communicator spoke about the dangers associated with texting while driving. The communicator then spoke out about the dangers of texting while driving.
The paper’s fieldwork, which was conducted on the UC San Diego campus, also measured behavior changes. Campus passersby could listen to a podcast segment and write a letter to support the communicator who was awarded an award. You can also sign up to find out more about how you can spread the word about Aira, the communicator. Listeners who listened to the podcast through headphones were much more likely than those who listened through speakers to give the communicator a nomination letter. They also were more likely not to be able to stop the broadcaster from contacting them with any questions.
Implications for audio ads, remote work, education and industry training
Given the increasing number of virtual communication and auditory messages, the implications of this paper are profound.
U.S. radio advertising spending is expected to reach $14.8 Billion by 2022 and U.S. podcast advertising revenues will reach more than $2 billion by 2023.
Alicea Lieberman assistant professor of marketing at UCLA Anderson School of Management said, “If the aim is to have listeners feel close to the communicator, or be particularly persuaded by their message, such as in a public service announcement, managers should consider placing their advertisement or message on a program often consumed via headphones, like a podcast.” On the other hand, messages that don’t require listeners to feel close to the communicator are less important than those placed on talk radio or podcast.
Remote work makes audio media an integral part the workday. For instance, in 2018, $87.6 billion was spent on industry trainings, with 69 percent involving virtual classroom/webcasting, or video broadcasting.
Juliana Schroeder is an associate professor of management at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. She said that organizations might consider such research when creating trainings and webinars. Managers might encourage employees listen to safety trainings and webinars via headphones. This may be more effective than listening to speakers.
Amir suggested that companies send headphones to employees to encourage them to use phone conversations. This could help increase collaboration in this era of remote working.
Headphones can also help to build a loyal and engaged audience for your on-air personality.
He stated that “Clearly, our research suggests that influencers, bloggers and podcasters want to try to make sure that people listen by headphones because that creates that attachment. Our research proposes that it is not only what or whom people hear that influences their judgments, decisions and behaviors, but also how they hear the message.”