Choose Personality, Press Play: Cognitive Style Predicted by Musical Preference

Music can change the world because it can change people ~ Bono

At first blush, layers of a personality peel back slowly.  Upon meeting someone new, a rudimentary judgment blooms based on apparent age, posture, gender, style of dress and even language spoken: Liberal. Likely shops at Whole Foods. Listens to NPR.  Intelligent and neat. Clearly owns a cat. Maybe two.  Is that a sperm whale tattoo? We are definitely going to be friends.  While our brain is adapted to make snappy assumptions, research points to a much faster (and more accurate) way of unlocking key personality elements: listening to their playlist.

A wealth of music research has argued that musical choices correctly reflect personality features.

Findings across studies and geographic regions converged to show that the Big Five personality traits are consistently linked to musical preferences.

In tune with this line of thinking, researchers at University of Cambridge wanted to determine how individual differences in music preferences are differentiated by cognitive type, based on the link between empathy [the ability to identify with other’s mental states] and systemizing [responding to behavior based on set rules] – the Empathizing-Systemizing Theory (ES).  In other words, does the music that makes your soul happy predict your thinking style?

Listening to music involves abilities such as reacting emotionally (affective reactivity) and interpreting how details relate to the whole (intellectual interpretation).  These abilities may overlap with the ES theory, such that empathizing is used when relating emotionally to others and systemizing might come into play when deconstructing particulars in music and relating them to an overall theme.

Testing musical preferences however, is problematic.  When asked how you respond to a particular genre of music, the answer is never accurate.  Sure you like rock music, but does that encompass ‘soft rock’ like the tunes of Billy Joel and Elton John or ‘hard rock’ such as the musical stylings of AC/DC and Guns N’ Roses? Or both? What if based on the culture of your upbringing, you were never exposed to Elton John? The genre-based methodologies make it difficult for researchers to accurately capture information about individual preferences.

Solution? MUSIC.

Mellow (romantic, sad, slow) – soft rock, R&B

Unpretentious (soft, acoustic, relaxing) – country, folk, singer/songwriter

Sophisticated (complex, dynamic, intelligent) – classical, avant-garde, jazz

Intense (distorted, loud, aggressive) – punk, heavy metal, power pop

Contemporary (percussive, electric) – rap, electronica, Latin

The MUSIC model, cleverly named after the first letter of each dimension label, reflects both sonic and psychological attributes which leads to an accurate observation of an individual’s musical preference.  It follows that those who enjoy music with emotional depth will have a high empathy score and those who prefer music with cerebral aspects will fall into the systemizing category. 

All participants in the study received empathy and personality trait questionnaires, along with 50, 15 sec snippets of songs which they rated on degree of liking.   

Results revealed that across genres, empathy levels correlated with Mellow music (R&B, soft rock) and negatively correlated with Intense music (punk, heavy metal). Plainly,

Empathizers preferred Mellow music and Systemizers preferred Intense music.

It seems that those who can successfully relate to another’s emotions select music with negative valence and emotional depth, preferably acoustic.  Think Norah Jones.  Those who can have a habit of systemizing elect music that is highly arousing combined with cerebral depth.  Think Rolling Stones. An important note: Since literature has suggested women have a higher degree of empathy, the study took into account sex differences.  The results endured: there were no differences between genders.

Evidence suggests the ES theory has a neurobiological basis.  Insofar as how humans interpret, process and feel music in the brain is unknown.  Thus, these findings are particularly useful in understanding the mind, specifically the autistic one - where the level of empathy is low and systemizing is high.  How do musical preferences in autism differ from typical developing populations?  Further – is it possible to increase (or prime) empathy by merely listening to a piece of music?  

Steven Pinker referred to music as “auditory cheesecake,” and asked “What benefit could there be to diverting time and energy to making plinking noises?”  Yet it was the late Oliver Sacks that argued in Musicophilia after witnessing incredible emotional reactions to music in deeply demented patients,

Once one has seen such responses, one knows that there is still a self to be called upon, if music, and only music, can do the calling.

Perhaps music’s role then, is not adaptive but reactive: spurring an emotional response which bonds one self to another. Greenberg DM, Baron-Cohen S, Stillwell DJ, Kosinski M, & Rentfrow PJ (2015). Musical Preferences are Linked to Cognitive Styles. PloS one, 10 (7) PMID: 26200656