New psychology research links conservative music, but not rebellious music, to maladaptive personality traits

Intense and rebellious music genres such as rap and heavy metal do not appear to be linked to maladaptive personality traits in American adults, according to new research published in the journal Psychology of Music. But the study did uncover some modest links between certain entertainment media preferences and problematic tendencies such as negative emotionality and psychoticism.

The researchers caution, however, that maladaptive traits and entertainment interests are not linked strongly enough to diagnose people based simply on the music and movies they like.

“As far back as the 1950s, one of the pioneers of modern personality psychology, the British psychologist Raymond Cattell, suggested that people’s entertainment preferences (e.g., music interests) may be linked to personality difficulties,” explained Pavel S. Blagov, an associate professor of psychology at Whitman College and the corresponding author of the new study.

“Later, in the early 2000s, Peter Rentfrow and Samuel Gosling with the University of Texas at Austin published a few influential studies linking contemporary models of normal (healthy-range) personality traits to music interests.”

“Following in their steps, we wanted to use that knowledge to predict links between entertainment preferences and recent models of maladaptive personality (unhealthy traits),” said Blagov, who is also the director of the college’s Personality Lab.

“These are the kinds of traits that clinical psychologists and psychiatrists might measure to describe long-standing difficulties in people’s usual ways of thinking, feeling, acting, and relating to others. This is important because valid models of personality should allow us to predict not only mental health and other health outcomes, but also day-to-day activities, like the kind of music and movies people enjoy.”

The researchers were able to uncover several relationships after surveying 379 Americans (ages 18 to 65 years) regarding their musical preferences, movie interests, personality traits, and psychopathic tendencies — even after accounting for sex and age differences.

“In general, some maladaptive traits appear to be linked to the kinds of music and movies people enjoy, but it is important to remember that the links are relatively weak. For example, people who tend to be unusually introverted or withdrawn do not seem to enjoy the kinds of stimulating, upbeat music played at social gatherings or the intense movies from the horror and thriller genres,” Blagov told PsyPost.

“People who are prone to strangeness, oddity, or eccentricity in their thinking report enjoying a wide variety of music and movies, as do people who describe themselves as unusually fearless and dominant (in a narcissistic sort of way). These findings parallel results from the literature on normal personality traits pertaining to introversion-extraversion and openness to experience.”

Conservative music such as country and gospel, along with faith-based movie genres, “were linked to traits that capture neurotic, hostile, and eccentric tendencies,” Blagov said.

“Interestingly, we found no support for the notion that people who enjoy intense/rebellious music (heavy metal, punk, alternative rock, hip-hop, rap, and rave) show maladaptive personality tendencies. This had been suggested in some older literature on the so-called (and I would like to emphasize the so-called) ‘problem’ music. We found no such link, perhaps because these music genres have become much more accepted, mainstream, and of interest to the average person (and more commercialized).”

“These findings do not mean that finding out what music and movies a person likes will readily allow us to guess how withdrawn, eccentric, fearless/dominant, or hostile the person is. They may exist at the population level, but they should not be used to ‘analyze’ individuals,” Blagov noted.

The study — like all research — includes some limitations. It is unclear, for instance, how well the results apply to other countries and cultures — or even subcultures within the United States. The results are also correlational, preventing the researchers from making determinations about cause-and-effect.

But the findings do provide several new avenues for future research.

“There isn’t enough research yet to explain the mechanisms, or the reasons why some normal and maladaptive traits are linked to entertainment preferences,” Blagov said.

“For example, do withdrawn and unusually introverted people veer away from upbeat music because they also shun social gatherings, or because the music is overstimulating to them in an unpleasant kind of way, or because it is too cheerful to be congruent with their moods?”

“Does the small link between conservative/religious entertainment and neurotic, hostile, and eccentric tendencies mean that people with such music and movie interests are more willing than the average person to acknowledge common personality failings, or does it mean that people who struggle with negative emotions turn to conservative/religious media for answers to their struggles?”

“Additional research is needed to explain the ‘why’ of the links between personality and entertainment interests,” Blagov added.

The study, “Maladaptive personality and psychopathy dimensions as predictors of music and movie preferences in US adults“, was authored by Pavel S. Blagov, Kristi Von Handorf, Alan T. Pugh, and Morgan G. Walker.