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The Ghost of Your Ex: Country Music and the Law of Contagion
By Heath Shive
Country artist Jason Aldean has a song out called Drowns the Whiskey. He sings: "Maybe it's the bar or the stool I'm on/Maybe it's the band and the sad old song/ That keeps me buying rounds."
The "sad old song" is not literally making him drink. It's the association between the song...and her. This is actually a rule in psychology known as the Law of Contagion.
To the science! (And a sad old story)
Once Upon a Time
Once upon a time, I was crazy for a woman. I drove half-way across the state and back just to spend an evening with her! Crazy!
She told me that I had better like country music – it was a “deal-breaker.” I didn’t hate country music. It just hadn’t appealed to me earlier. But lo and behold, I came to like the stuff! Even put a country station on my car’s radio button.
But, the candle that burns twice as bright lasts half as long. A while later, she and I parted ways. Not long after, I was listening to country music…and I couldn’t stand it. Changed the music station on my radio button.
“Country music” itself was not responsible for my broken heart. I didn’t have a torrid affair with Reba McEntire or Miranda Lambert – though I would invite both of them to try (wink).
But she loved country music – therefore country music had been compromised.
Sounds crazy, but it actually has to do with an idea in psychology called the law of contagion – an idea that first got its start as a law of sympathetic magic!
Don’t believe me?
To the science and magic!
The Science of Roach Juice
Back in 1986, psychologists Paul Rozin, Linda Millman, and Carol Nemeroff published a hilarious series of studies on the laws of contagion and laws of similarity.
In one experiment, students were asked to taste and rate 2 kinds of juice (apple and grape) from 2 different glasses. Afterwards, one juice glass was touched by a sterilized, dead cockroach and the other was touched by a plastic candle holder. Do I have to say it? The students rated the “roached” juice with intense dislike – even though, scientifically speaking the juice was fine.
But here’s the trick. Fresh juice was then poured into new glasses!
Whichever juice had touched the roach in the previous experiment was subsequently judged worse than the original rating!
This was fresh juice in a new glass – but the memory of contamination remained and conditioned the students’ judgments.
The Law of Contagion
The law of contagion states that a lasting connection is created between 2 objects that have been in contact with each other – or at least, if we “connect” them mentally. The law of contagion is generally ascribed to James George Frazer – author of the seminal work The Golden Bough.
It’s a magic trope. If an evil person dies in a house, then you get a haunted house. Or conversely, a saint’s bones or relics have benevolent powers.
But Rozin, Millman, and Nemeroff showed that there were psychological underpinnings to the idea, or that the “magic” involved was only a reflection of real and unconscious instincts.
Our ancient ancestors didn’t have hygiene science or even soap! Dangerous contagion was real and all around. It shouldn’t surprise us that an instinct developed to urge us in the right direction.
But that instinct can be evoked in crazy ways. And I was pretty crazy about her…once upon a time.
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Rozin, Paul & Millman, Linda & Nemeroff, Carol. (1986). Operation of the Laws of Sympathetic Magic in Disgust and Other Domains. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 50 (4), 703-712.
Hello! My name is Heath Shive, content manager at ScholarFox. I'll be the author of most of the blog posts. I'm a former geologist and currently a freelance writer. The world is complex and seemingly crazy. Good! Because when you love to learn, you'll never be bored.