Audio cues can change how we perceive sharks, according to a new study. Audio cues can change how we perceive sharks, according to a new study. Audio cues can change how we perceive sharks, according to a new study. (Photo: Complot / Shutterstock)

Does uplifting music make sharks less scary?

New research shows that simply changing a TV or movie soundtrack can alter our perceptions.

When Darth Vader enters the scene in "Star Wars," or when Lex Luthor arrives at a charity gala in "Batman v. Superman," they're often accompanied by scary music. Filmmakers use that as a cue to the audience that danger is on the way.

And it's not just villains of the human variety that garner such negative tunes. Take shark movies, for example. "The Shallows" and the latest installment of the "Sharknado" franchise are just two recent examples that featured scary soundtracks and sea creatures. Not to mention that it's the ominous theme music for the 1975 movie "Jaws" that has become synonymous in pop culture with an imminent threat.

But what if movie mixers used different background music when sharks were on the screen? Would that change our opinion of the sharp-toothed fish? Four professors associated with the University of California, San Diego decided to conduct a study to see what would happen.

"Using three experiments, we show that participants rated sharks more negatively and less positively after viewing a 60-second video clip of swimming sharks set to ominous background music, compared to participants who watched the same video clip set to uplifting background music, or silence," the researchers wrote in their paper, which was just published in a scientific journal.

You can watch the clip with the uplifting music below:

Part of their research relies on a concept called the "availability heuristic," which says that we create mental shortcuts based on immediate examples. Meaning, if we hear scary music when we see sharks in a movie, we'll tell our brain that all sharks must be scary. This concept was first pioneered by Nobel Prize-winning Israeli-American psychologist Daniel Kahneman. (His research is now being turned into a book by Michael Lewis, the author of such bestselling books as "The Big Short," "Liar's Poker," "Moneyball" and "The Blind Side.")

Fellow Israeli Ayelet Gneezy was one of the co-authors on the new shark study and has made a career out of studying consumer behavior. She previously researched what would happen if there was a "pay what you want" admission policy at Disney theme parks.

Of course, not all movie depictions of sharks are scary. In 2004, Dreamworks Animation released "Shark Tale" about a young shark and his vegetarian brother hoping to make a good impression. (Although, to be fair, the film also starred the voice talent of Robert De Niro as a shark mob boss.)

The recent shark study had more noble intentions than just discerning the best movie music. It was also about conservation, as disappearing shark populations are a global concern.

"Sharks have been vilified in human culture for centuries, and negative attitudes toward sharks continue to pervade mass media, perpetuating stereotypes, often conveying inaccurate information," the researchers wrote. "Given that nature documentaries are often regarded as objective and authoritative sources of information, it is critical that documentary filmmakers and viewers are aware of how the soundtrack can affect the interpretation of the educational content."

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