An earful of altruism; influencing charity shoppers with music!

Alaric Kime
Written by Alaric Kime

Over the course of three weeks our Forrest Road charity shop, along with its volunteer team and shop manager Alaric, played host to a music study run by Marianna, an undergraduate student at the University of Edinburgh. This study tried to measure the effect of different kinds of music on people’s altruistic behaviours. See what Marianna and Alaric have to say about it below!


When the average reaction for an unusual request includes a raised eyebrows and  ‘sure, drop us an email and we’ll think about it’, you know you have spotted the right place when the enthusiasm is even more than yours. This was the case when I entered Shelter Scotland’s charity shop on Forrest Road and, with some hesitation, asked the shop’s manager Alaric whether I could conduct a study at the shop as part of my undergraduate dissertation.

As a fourth year student, I knew that I wanted to organise my own project. While reading as much as I could on how music can affect people’s behaviour, I came across the sophisticated term ‘pro-social songs’. Songs in this category have lyrics about peace, brotherhood and similar topics. Many of us are familiar with such songs thanks to various artists and also charity events (for example ‘Imagine’ by John Lennon, ‘People help the people’ by Birdy, or Michael Jackson’s ‘Heal the world’). According to studies, pro-social songs can influence our behaviour by increasing our altruistic tendencies, or in other words, our desire to help others. Researchers that have conducted studies on restaurants and cafes confirm that people will give more tips and will buy more Fairtrade instead of normal coffee when exposed to pro-social songs. With the majority of the published studies showing a positive effect, I became curious on whether I could replicate their findings.

With my mind still not clear, however, on how I would conduct my study, persuading a shop manager to play songs from a playlist for whole days at a time over the course of several weeks was not an easy task. I was almost convinced that I should give up on the project after two weeks of either negative responses or unanswered emails. It was then that I entered Shelter Scotland’s shop on Forrest Road and when I got to talking with the shop manager Alaric about the project, his enthusiasm made me realise that I had finally found the right place for my study.

While keeping in contact for the first semester and with Alaric answering patiently all my email requests, the study was arranged to take place on the 22nd of January. Alaric’s knowledge and academic experience was a great contribution when designing the study. I soon realised that the list of pro-social songs is more limited than expected, which meant that I would have to test the limits of the shop team’s patience, as each playlist would play about 8 times a day!

To more accurately measure footfall, we installed an automated footfall counter on the door, which Alaric and the shop volunteers were only too happy to help with! The study ran from Monday to Wednesday for three consecutive weeks, over a total of 9 days, so that three different playlists could be tested equally on one day each week.

As I found out through my study of previous research, music itself can increase altruism through the secretion of social hormones. Furthermore, altruism may depend on mood and it is well known that music can be a major mood influence. With no previous study testing whether there is any difference in behavior when pro-social lyrics or no lyrics are in the music, I felt that it was reasonable to test behavior with both pro-social songs and instrumental versions of the same songs. So the first playlist was of lyrical pro-social songs, the second of the same songs without lyrics and, the third playlist included music that the shop would normally play, mostly featuring upbeat songs from the 80s and 90s, especially synth heavy music (Alaric’s favorite!)

For measuring pro-social behavior I asked people leaving the shop to complete a three minute survey to help with a university project while getting the chance to win an Amazon voucher or cash in a prize draw. In this way, I could measure not only the number of respondents and refusals but also the number of people that chose to donate to Shelter Scotland or keep the cash prize if they won. Happily for everyone, the winner of the prize draw has chosen to donate to Shelter Scotland. Being able to donate the £25 cash prize was a nice way to be able to give something back for all the effort Alaric and the Shelter Scotland shop team put in to help with the study (including listening to playlists on repeat!)

There were some interesting findings:

When people heard pro-social songs, the percentage of those deciding to take part in the study was higher than when instrumental music was playing, which in turn was higher than when the shop’s music was playing (figure 1). The results were similar when people were asked whether they would like to donate the prize draw’s money to Shelter Scotland or keep it for themselves (figure 2). However the results inside the shop were the exact opposite, with the highest numbers in sales when the shop’s music was playing, followed by instrumental and pro-social songs in the end. Clearly Alaric’s taste resonated well with shoppers! These results can be explained by a number of studies confirming that upbeat music leads to greater sales.  Even though the results were from a relatively small sample size, it still goes to show how important music choice is in creating a positive environment for staff and customers alike!

Figure 1 Percentage of respondents under each playlist


Figure 2 Number of people that chose to donate the prize draw to Shelter Scotland


Figure 3 Total of sales in each music

Getting the opportunity to work closely with such positive people working for a great organisation was an unforgettable experience. I am still amazed at not only the kindness and motivation of the staff, but also the large number of volunteers that are dedicating their time on a good cause. With over 40 volunteers at the shop, it was difficult not to confuse them with customers and, to Alaric’s entertainment, I often ended up chasing behind them when they left the shop, asking them to complete the survey!

By standing outside the shop for a total of six hours to conduct the survey, I also got to remind myself for whom these people are working for. Poor housing and homelessness are major issues in the UK and Shelter Scotland has supported thousands facing difficulties. As students at the University of Edinburgh, collaborating with charities like Shelter Scotland can be fruitful for both university projects but also for Shelter Scotland, for whom we can spread  the word and remind people how their continuous efforts make a difference to those struggling to access the housing everyone deserves.

I would like to take the opportunity to thank all the staff, especially Alaric, with whom this project would not have been possible.


Being able to take part in Marianna’s music study and collaborate with undergraduate research is exactly what our Community Shop ethic is all about. With our shop in the heart of Edinburgh and right next to the University campus, students and the university are as much a part of our local community as the postman would be in a small town! It’s always rewarding to give something back and work together with the kind of people that give our local area its unique character and do something a bit different and exciting, especially when it can give us some insight into our own shop like this music study did.  I’ve got to admit, hearing Michael Jackson songs without lyrics on repeat wore thin pretty quickly, but even so, working together with Marianna and helping her ground her dissertation was a very rewarding and entertaining experience. I took particular joy in the fact that my retro-80’s music taste went hand in hand with the best sales, contrary to expectation.  The study was also a great backdrop to some really interesting conversations with customers and volunteers alike about why we are driven to do charitable work or help others, something that is always worth reminding ourselves of. Shop life is certainly better with a bit of variety and the music study definitely spiced things up! I’m sure Marianna will turn this experience into an excellent dissertation and I look forward to reading the final product.