Songs of Our Selves
In connection with the day job, I try to keep an eye on certain areas of academic research. That's why I happened to be flipping through the March 2006 issue (Vol. 17; No. 3) of Psychological Science, a journal publishd by the Association for Psychological Sciences, and got interested in an article called "Message in a Ballad." The abstract asked: "How is information about people conveyed through their preferences for certain kinds of music?" Interesting question. If you've ever visited or even read about Myspace, you know that "favorite music" is regarded as a kidn of secret decoder ring self-identifier there. And on a more solipsistic note: You can probably guess that I'm rather fond of the song "St. James Infirmary." And therefore you can infer ... what, exactly?
According to the research article, which was written by Peter J. Rentfrow of the University of Cambridge and Samuel D. Gosling of the University of Texas, their past work has already shown that "individuals consider their preferences for music more revealing of their personalities than their preferences for books, clothing, food, movies, and television shows." In their first study for this article, Rentfrow and Gosling "examined the content of conversation among strangers over a six-week getting-acquainted period." The strangers were 60 UT undergrads. The "conversations" were actually online. That said, in the first week, 58% of the subjects "talked" about music, making it the top category (over movies, sports, etc.). Music tended to remain among the most-discussed topics throughout the six weeks. "In a context where individuals were completely free to discuss absolutely anything that they considered relevant to the task of becoming acquainted," the authors assert, "the majority talked about music."
The second study moved on to the question of what information musical preference actually conveys. To address this, the researchers had 74 UT undergrads make lists of favorites songs, which were basically judged by eight "observers," using a kind of personality-attribute coding system. The results of those judgments were then measured against the self-ratings of the test subjects. (It's all a bit too weedy to get into the coding details here.)
Basically, in some areas, they found evidence that musical preferences really are "valid indicators" of some aspects of personality. "In particular," the researchers write, "music preferences provide more information about targets' Agreeableness, Emotional Stability, and Openness, and less information about targets' Extraversion and Conscientiousness." Later in the paper they write that the results suggest that we "have an intuitive understanding of the links between music preferences and personality." As examples they say that subjects whose music picks tended to have vocals "were correctly perceived as extroverted," people with country songs on their lists "were accurately perceived as emotionally stable," and jazz fans were "correctly perceived as intellectual."
As you can guess if you spend much time reading academic research, there were a bunch of caveats. One aspect of the study that I think is worth paying attention to is reliance on self-judgments of test subjects as the sort of baseline of personality truth. Plenty of past research suggests that most of us can be kind of unreliable in judging our own personality traits (compared to what our friends would say, for instance). However, I think self-evaluations are actually the right yardstick in this case: My guess is that when we're asked to share our music faves, the choices we make are likely affected (consciously or not) at least as much by what we're trying to project as by who we really are. In other words, perhaps jazz fans were correctly perceived as seeing themselves as intellectual (maybe people who know them would agree; maybe not).
Of course, I don't have any data on that. But given the context of this web site, I was amused by the researchers' speculation, sort of along these lines, that "individuals might use music to make self- and other-directed identity claims; for instance, intellectual people might listen to complex music because it projects an image of sophistication."
So: Have I, uh, fooled you yet?