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The Globe and Mail

Can’t get those holiday ‘earworms’ out of your head? You’re not alone

Mariah Carey stopped by Jimmy Fallon and The Roots and did a flawless All I Want For Christmas Is You.

Go on and call them Grinches if you will. But just ask anyone who has worked in retail over the holidays – even the most ardent fans of Christmas songs may find themselves changing their tune after being stuck for hours in a windowless mall, among hordes of frenzied shoppers, with various renditions of Jingle Bell Rock and Wham!'s Last Christmas playing on a loop.

Why do Christmas jingles trigger cringing and teeth-gritting? The answer may lie in the "mere exposure effect," and store employees whose bosses insist on playing Christmas tunes non-stop are particularly vulnerable, explains Victoria Williamson, a music psychology researcher at Goldsmiths, University of London.

The "mere exposure effect" is an inverted U-shaped relationship between one's enjoyment of a song and the number of times it is played, which charts how people initially like a catchy little ditty, then like it more and more, until it becomes horribly irritating, Williamson said in an e-mail. (If Paul McCartney's hyper-peppy Wonderful Christmastime doesn't jangle your nerves the first time around, it will – just give the track a few more spins.)

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Some people may find that involuntary exposure to holiday music violates their need for control, especially since repetitive and highly familiar songs have a tendency to get stuck in their heads, adds professor James Kellaris, an expert on the phenomenon of earworms, at the University of Cincinnati. "The auditory intrusion can also eat up cognitive capacity," he says, which makes it hard to think and focus.

Your mood before you hear a song, he notes, can also determine how you feel about it – which may explain why Here Comes Santa Claus does nothing to lift the spirits of that surly minimum-wage sales clerk behind the checkout counter. "A happy piece of music can cheer us when we are cheerful, annoy us when we are not," Kellaris says.

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