Why We Are Like Earworms, and What to Do About It.

Earworms are the songs you can’t get out of your head. They crawl in when you hear them, or when you see a word or hear a phrase that makes you think of them, or in a moment of stress, or when you’re happy. The threat is constant.

For me it’s Everybody Dance Now by C & C Music Factory. (If you don’t know the song, do not do a search for it. You’ve been warned.) I heard a guy on the radio talk about how he rode his bike to work past a hospital every day, and there were two reserved parking spaces along the road, each with a sign saying ‘doctor’. Even though he tried to avoid the earworm, every day he arrived at work with Doctor Doctor by the Thompson Twins bopping in his head. Music psychologist Dr. Vicky Williamson talked in a BBC article last year about a woman who got the song Nathan Jones by Bananarama stuck in her head during a big exam when she was 16, and for whom it now resurfaces during every single stressful moment of her life.

So why are we like earworms? Because even when we try to avoid the behavioral patterns that drive us crazy, we still end up singing that same old tune.

There are so many ways to slice and dice human personality. Perhaps in your professional life you’ve seen your results on psychometric profiling tests such as MBTI, DISC, Insights or DOPE. If you’ve taken one or many of them, then you’ve probably felt the relief at knowing a bit more about what makes you tick, and how that comes across to others.

That’s the easy part. The hard part is understanding our kneejerk behavior under stress, accepting that it needs work, and figuring out how to improve the situation. For this, I’ve found the work of Robert Bolton and Dorothy Grover Bolton most helpful. Their book People Styles at Work: Making Bad Relationships Good and Good Relationships Better describes how to discern what people’s dominant style is when they seem, as most people do, to be a combination of things: Watch how they behave under stress. Bolton and Bolton identify the four main working types as Driver, Analytical, Amiable and Expressive, and show that under great stress, a Driver will become an autocrat, an Analytical will avoid, an Amiable will acquiesce, and an Expressive will attack.

I’m amiable sometimes, and a bit of a driver too, but it was immediately clear to me when I studied the types that I’m basically an Expressive. What was challenging, though, was the bit about attacking. “I get that I’m an Expressive,” I said to my husband, “but I don’t attack.”

You should have seen his face. It was priceless. He kind of bit the end of his finger and said, “Ummmm…”

“I don’t attack you, do I?” I asked.

“No, you don’t,” he said, still not sure where to look.

“So when do I attack?” I asked, possibly sounding just the tiniest bit like I was attacking him.

“The kids,” he said simply.

The penny dropped. He was right. My two teenaged children are, as well as the greatest joy of my life, the greatest source of stress. And when that button gets pushed, I have been known to come at them with question after question and a hint of dragon around the eyes. That’s where I’m like an earworm. Attack is the song I play when I stress about my kids.

Psychologists theorize that one reason earworms get so stuck in our heads is that our brains love resolution, and we hardly ever know what comes after the short part of the tune that is playing over and over and over. Often the bit that repeats is the part of the song that repeats, the catchiest part, the chorus rather than the verse. “Nathan Jones you been gone too long,” for example, or “Doctor Doctor, can’t you see I’m burning burning?”

So the solution to the problem is to learn the verse. Learn the whole song. Otherwise your brain will keep repeating the chorus in its search for what comes next.

I’m convinced the same goes for repeated unwanted behavior. We need to learn the whole behavioral song. So I’ve had a talk with the kids. We’ve discussed our stress triggers, and how we usually behave, and we’ve talked about how we’d rather behave. We’re writing the verses now, when things are calm, so we can sing them later, and resolve the stressful situations.


Alison Lester is a writer and communication skills coach based in Singapore. Her books include a guide to more creative and comfortable presentation skills called Present for Success, and a collection of essays called Restroom Reflections: How Communication Changes Everything. She blogs at RestroomReflections.com, and her first novel, Lillian on Life, will be published by Amy Einhorn Books in January 2015.

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