One of the most common “icebreaker” conversation topics is music preferences. We ask friends what they’re listening to on their iPods, bloggers post playlists on their sidebars, and one of the most popular websites on the planet (MySpace) is built around sharing music. The assumption is that musical preferences can tell us something beyond what someone likes to listen to — we believe we can judge a person’s personality, fashion preferences, and more based just on the style of music they prefer.
For me, it’s difficult not to form a mental picture of a person when I hear what music they listen to. A heavy metal fan evokes an entirely different mental image for me compared to a classical music buff or someone who likes religious music. But are these mental pictures accurate? Can we really make reliable judgments based just on music preferences? Until recently, very little research had been conducted on the subject.
We’ve discussed one such study here on Cognitive Daily, by Peter Rentfrow and Samuel Gosling, which suggested that music preferences do correlate with some personality traits. Now Rentfrow and Gosling have conducted a new study which explores a wider range of musical styles, and focuses more on stereotypes than individual preferences.
They quizzed over 200 college students on their stereotypes of fans of one of 14 different musical genres: blues, classical, folk, jazz, alternative, heavy metal, rock, country, pop, religious, soundtracks, electronic, rap, and soul. For most genres, the judges were largely in agreement as to what the typical fan was like.
The graph below shows how the judges rated five personality traits of fans of four of the genres:
For each of these genres, the judges were largely in agreement. But when Rentfrow and Gosling asked 85 actual music fans to rate their own personalities, their own ratings agreed with the judges for just two of these genres: rock and religious. In fact, judges’ personality ratings correlated with actual ratings for only seven of the fourteen genres studied.
For personal qualities such as attractiveness, intelligence, religiousness, and conservatism, correlations between judges’ ratings and actual ratings were even rarer — they occurred in only four genres.
The researchers also asked both groups about values such as ambition, love, salvation, friendship, and courage, and again found that the stereotypes did not always match the actual ratings. In only two genres — jazz and religious music — did the stereotype correlate with the actual ratings for personality, personal qualities, and values.
Rentfrow and Gosling asked judges to stereotype music fans for which recreational drugs they thought they preferred, but because of privacy concerns, they didn’t ask actual music fans about it. Still, it’s interesting to see how the stereotypes pan out:
Maybe we could do a Casual Friday study to see if the stereotype matches up with actual drug preferences. Do you think there are ethical issues with such a study? While our survey software does collect the IP addresses of those who fill in the survey, it would be impossible for us to identify individual respondents.
Rentfrow and Gosling point out one additional limitation to their study: They only studied college students. Perhaps older adults have different stereotypes and actual preferences. Again, perhaps this is something we could address on a Casual Friday. What do you think?
Rentfrow, P.J., Gosling, S.D. (2007). The content and validity of music-genre stereotypes among college students. Psychology of Music, 35(2), 306-326.