Understanding the overlap between positive and negative involuntary cognitions using instrumental earworms.

Involuntary cognitions—thoughts that arise spontaneously without conscious effort—are an everyday phenomenon. These cognitions include future thoughts, autobiographical memories, and, perhaps most commonly, earworms. Earworms—the experience of having a song stuck in your head—provide a window into the mind. We used earworms of instrumental music to investigate whether the likelihood of music returning involuntarily depends on the music’s emotional valence. We generalize these findings to understand the possible similarities and differences between positive and negative involuntary cognitions. We also assessed whether the music’s familiarity influences the likelihood of it returning involuntarily. We exposed participants (n = 143) to positive or negative instrumental film music that was low versus high in familiarity, and measured subsequent frequency, duration, and characteristics of earworms inside and outside the lab. We effectively induced earworms; 94% of participants experienced earworms inside the lab and 62% over the subsequent 8 hr. All participants experienced a similar number of earworms, regardless of the music’s emotional valence, but these earworms differed in quality. Participants reported earworms for negative music as more distressing and subjectively less frequent than earworms for positive music. Contrary to existing earworm research, the music’s familiarity had no effect on the presence or qualitative experience of earworms. Our findings suggest that involuntary cognitions for positive and negative content are similar in their frequency, but distinctive in how they are experienced (e.g., distress ratings). (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2018 APA, all rights reserved)