Musical Preferences Vs. Personality

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I heard about a study where they linked the type of music you like with your personality traits, or vice versa; I’m not sure which comes first in this chicken/egg scenario.

Any time I hear about music studies, my interest is automatically piqued. And then, I forgot about it for a while, until I added some music in very disparate genres into my iTunes library. So, today, we’re going to study the study and see how it holds true.

The study was published at PLOS ONE, a science journal I’ve never heard of, however, the article seems to be peer reviewed, which gives me slightly greater confidence in the results. In any event, I take the source material with a grain of salt.

Unless otherwise linked, all quotes in this post are from the article at PLOS ONE.

The Premise

Why do we like the music we do? Research has shown that musical preferences and personality are linked, yet little is known about other influences on preferences such as cognitive styles. To address this gap, we investigated how individual differences in musical preferences are explained by the empathizing-systemizing (E-S) theory.

OK, so they’re trying to link cognitive styles to type of music preferred. What’s this empathizing-systemizing (E-S) theory then?

The empathizing–systemizing (E–S) theory suggests that people may be classified on the basis of their scores along two dimensions: empathizing (E) and systemizing (S). It measures a person’s strength of interest in empathy (the ability to identify and understand the thoughts and feelings of others and to respond to these with appropriate emotions); and a person’s strength of interest in systems (in terms of the drive to analyse or construct them).

I’m highly skeptical of horoscopes since they shove people into only twelve pigeon-holes; this empathizing-systemizing (E-S) theory uses only two. Also, is it a theory, i.e., provably true with data to support it, or is it only an hypothesis? The Wikipedia page refers to it as both.

Theories and hypotheses are not the same. You can’t just call a scientific premise a theory willy-nilly. Until you have definitive proof, it’s an hypothesis. I’ll get off my soap box now, but that drives me batty.

Essentially, the “E-S Theory” is supposed to graph all people on a chart between systemizing and empathizing. Most people are supposed to fall closer to one or the other, which makes sense I suppose when dealing with only two sort of contrary criteria.

Also, in the interest of disclosure, I noticed that both the empathizing-systemizing (E-S) theory/hypothesis, and the study from the Journal PLOS ONE were written, at least in part, by this man, Simon Baron-Cohen:

Simon Baron-Cohen (

Not that his picture has anything to do with anything, but I like to know who’s doing the talking. Also, his name is remarkable similar to this man, Sacha Baron-Cohen, a comedian and professional bullshitter:

Sacha Baron Cohen (

Anyway, moving on since that’s probably not relevant at all.

Essentially, the premise of the study is to categorize all musical preferences and personality types into two groups: empathizing and systemizing, which automatically makes me leery.

Today’s Horoscope: Be cautious of studies from unknown science journals written by people with the same last name as comedians.

The Mechanics

Since this study separately measures (I hope it’s separate–otherwise we’re dealing with a correlation/causation problem from the get-go) what type of music a person prefers and what type of personality that same person has, before I looked at the study’s results, I was most curious as the mechanics of the study. According to Baron Cohen, that would make me a systemizer.

There are millions of possible variations in both personality and musical preference, so I wanted to see how they took that into account.

Facebook users were able to complete a variety of psychology-related questionnaires.

So, Facebook. They used personality test results from people who take those online personality tests and share them on Facebook. Automatically, that means you’re limiting personalities and dealing only with certain personality types, since only some people are likely to do Facebook surveys, e.g., not me.

Each sample completed the same empathy measure but they differed in the musical stimuli presented to them.

Well, at least we settled the correlation/causation question.

By reporting their preferential reactions to musical stimuli, samples 1 and 2 (Ns = 2,178 and 891) indicated their preferences for music from 26 different genres, and samples 3 and 4 (Ns = 747 and 320) indicated their preferences for music from only a single genre (rock or jazz).

So, the first two groups of 3,000+ people were asked to give their opinions on 26 styles of music, while the second two groups, made up of 1,000+ people were asked to give only their opinion of rock and jazz respectively.

If I was in group 4, I’d be screwed since jazz is one of my least favorite genres ever. Anyway…

Results across samples showed that empathy levels are linked to preferences even within genres and account for significant proportions of variance in preferences over and above personality traits for various music-preference dimensions.

Alright, so they found that even in groups 3 and 4 that only listened to rock and jazz respectively, personality differences (between only empathizing and sympathizing) were apparent.


Those who are type E (bias towards empathizing) preferred music on the Mellow dimension (R&B/soul, adult contemporary, soft rock genres) compared to type S (bias towards systemizing) who preferred music on the Intense dimension (punk, heavy metal, and hard rock).

And that right there is why the study first interested me, because I like music in ALL OF THOSE GENRES.

Analyses of fine-grained psychological and sonic attributes in the music revealed that type E individuals preferred music that featured low arousal (gentle, warm, and sensual attributes), negative valence (depressing and sad), and emotional depth (poetic, relaxing, and thoughtful), while type S preferred music that featured high arousal (strong, tense, and thrilling), and aspects of positive valence (animated) and cerebral depth (complexity).

Again, depending on my mood, I like all of those descriptors. I like hip hop, hardcore punk and heavy metal. I like classical, classic rock and country. I like big band, blues and bluegrass. Ska, soul and stoner rock. Progressive, psychedelic and post rock. Folk, funk, flamenco.

My iTunes library has over 40K songs in practically every genre from all of recorded human history. It has over 26 genres of music in the letter A alone. My full shuffle just went from Frank Sinatra to Astronautilus to Cause For Alarm to Parliament. This could go on forever, but you get the picture.

Classify that, Simon Baron-Cohen.

Based on my musical taste, you can’t presuppose that I’m either empathetic or systematic. So, which am I? Well, just to be thorough, I took the personality test.

Just as my musical taste is all over the map, so is my emphathizing and systemizing. At least that much is consistent.

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According to the test, I’m almost right in the middle. I have a “lower than average ability for understanding how other people feel and responding appropriately” and “a lower than average ability for analyzing and exploring a system.”

Because I’m almost dead in the middle, I’m terrible at both systemizing and empathizing. I’m an anomaly and below average at everything. I have failed at human; maybe I’d be a better sea otter.



I think it’s fair to say that, just as every human who has ever or will ever exist on this planet cannot be easily classified as one of twelve astronomical signs, it’s even less accurate when you attempt to shove those same people in only two categories. Then, when you extrapolate those results into musical taste, well, things start getting silly.

And, really, what’s the point anyway? We like what we like, no matter whether we’re an E or an S.

Also, I think generalizations of any kind are bunk. So, thanks for that.

Following the incredibly broad brush strokes laid out here, are you a systemizer or an empathasizer based on the music you like? If you want to go for extra credit by taking the personality test, how accurate are your results, especially when compared to the type of music you prefer?



In honor of the momentous, yet decades late, decision to legalize same-sex marriage on a federal level in the United States, I have drawn a hippo and named him Kennedy. hipporainbow To be honest, I started the drawing of the hippo yesterday before the Supreme Court became rational. Hippos have not much to do with the Supreme Court or same-sex marriage, but Kennedy looks good on a rainbow background. Besides, if they knew or cared what it was, I’m sure hippos would approve of same-sex marriage, because they’re cool.

Thank you, SCOTUS majority, for not taking the sissy way out and merely recognizing same-sex marriage across state lines. No, you went all the way and legalized it. Good job on you!

As to the dusty dissenters, well, screw you. Roberts, go retire somewhere with your hatred to keep you warm at nights, and take the other three curmudgeons with you. That the SCOTUS minority of wizened windbags is having a terrible week doesn’t disturb me as you’ve caused me many in the past.

I have a few words for Scalia, the squeakiest wheel on this particular go-kart. In light of your opinion on Citizen’s United, I’d particularly like to call you out on this bit of double-dealing hypocrisy from your dissenting opinion:

This practice of constitutional revision by an unelected committee of nine, always accompanied (as it is today) by extravagant praise of liberty, robs the People of the most important liberty they asserted in the Declaration of Independence and won in the Revolution of 1776: the freedom to govern themselves.

In the Citizens United ruling, you took, as you say, the “most important liberty they asserted in the Declaration of Independence and won in the Revolution of 1776” away from “the People” and handed it to the highest bidder in the form of “constitutional revision by an unelected committee of nine.”

In the Citizens United case, you didn’t allow something so trifling as people getting married; your ruling took a hacksaw to the underpinnings of American democracy as a whole. Oh, and you also turned corporations into people. How corporations = people still boggles my tiny primate mind. And, no, I’m not likely to get over it or stop bringing it up any time soon.

So, Scalia, I accuse you of the same thing that you’re accusing the majority of today. You go on an on about abuse of power, legislative meddling and chicanery by the SCOTUS majority, when you’re guilty of enacting legislation, or as you call it, “super-legislative power” in the Citizens United case. I suppose if you’re Antonin Scalia, it just depends on which side of the fence you’re on as to whether something’s an abuse of power.

Besides, I don’t even believe that the majority is guilty of abuse of power since Kennedy’s opinion is chockablock with legislative precedence that backs up the ruling. I totally agree with this part of your dissenting opinion though, Scalia:

A system of government that makes the People subordinate to a committee of nine unelected lawyers does not deserve to be called a democracy.

In view of that statement of yours, would you kindly repeal your Citizens United ruling? Thanks in advance.

One last thing, Scalia: at the same time you accuse Kennedy of using high-flown, flowery language, shame on you for saying “Huh?” in a SCOTUS opinion. A little pomp and circumstance is acceptable, even expected, from the highest court in the land. You do realize that your “Huh?” and the disparaging remarks you made will be on the record forever, or as long as our battered (at your hands) democracy stands, right?

Anyway, personal morals have no business mingling with the law. I can’t say it any better than this line from Kennedy’s majority opinion:

…when that sincere, personal opposition becomes enacted law and public policy, the necessary consequence is to put the imprimatur of the State itself on an exclusion that soon demeans or stigmatizes those whose own liberty is then denied.

Congratulations to all the people who can now get married anywhere in the US. It’s about damn time.

Obligatory, shameless self-promotion: you can buy your own Kennedy here.

Awarding Thievery

Based on my series 10 Bands You’ve Probably Never Heard, I’m sure it’s fairly obvious that I’m not a big fan of pop music. I never listen to music on the radio, and I couldn’t care less about Katy Perry or Rihanna’s latest. Yawn.

I have Kanye West’s latest album from 2013, Yeezus. I’ve tried listening to it more than once and it’s absolutely awful. Black Skinhead is the only almost listenable song (I can almost listen to the whole thing before skipping it). The whole album is so auto-tuned that I’m not even sure that Kanye West is a real person and not a robot.

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I also have Nas’ penultimate effort, Life Is Good, which for some reason, brings all the background noise to the front and drowns his voice entirely. Who did the mixing on this? It’s terrible. Why are the violins louder than his voice?

I have the latest Daft Punk, too, which swept the Grammy Awards in 2013. I admit that Get Lucky is a catchy song, but it’s also predictable and a far cry from the sound that made Daft Punk famous in the first place.

I bring forth these examples to prove that I do, in fact, try to listen to popular music; I just find it boring and so auto-tuned as to be unrecognizable as a human voice.

I didn’t watch the Grammy Awards last night, but I heard about them this morning. It seems that they were swept by Sam Smith. His song, Stay With Me, that raked in all that Grammy bling, including Song of the Year, was partially stolen. Sam Smith acknowledged it when he agreed to pay royalties:

The settlement reportedly included a 12.5% writing credit to both Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne (ELO). The song’s credit on the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) now lists Smith, Petty, Lynne, and Jimmy Napes as the chief songwriters.

Smith said, “I am 22 and I’ve never heard the song.” He’s never heard a multi-platinum song that has never stopped getting radio play, has been covered 20 times by everyone from Pearl Jam to Johnny Cash, and used in everything from presidential campaigns to sports arenas in the more than 22 years it’s been around.

The Grammy for Song of The Year was awarded to Jimmy Napes, William Phillips and Sam Smith, with no mention of Lynne or Petty, either by Sam Smith or the Recording Academy.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Bill Freimuth, the Recording Academy’s senior vice president of awards, said this before the show:

Since Lynne and Petty did not do any new writing for this work, we are considering their original work to have been interpolated. Lynne and Petty will not be considered nominees nor will they be considered GRAMMY recipients, should the song win. Rather, they would be given certificates to honor their participation in the work, just as any other writers of sampled or interpolated work.

Meanwhile, Tom Petty has never won a Grammy for either Song of the Year or Record of the Year, and Sam Smith now has more Grammy awards than Tom Petty has won in his entire career.

This is hardly the first time that a major American awards show has congratulated plagiarism.

If you’re familiar with this blog, at this point, you’re probably going to want to roll your eyes, since I’m going to talk about my favorite example of awarding thievery, The Departed.

I watched that movie in 2006 not long after it was released. As I was watching, I had a strange sense of déjà vu that I had seen it before. It took about 30 minutes into its tedious 151 minute run-time to realize that The Departed was, in actuality, one of my favorite Hong Kong movies, Infernal Affairs.

Infernal Affairs has a better cast, it’s shorter (by 50 longass minutes) and best of all, it’s original. I’ll take Andy Lau or Tony Chiu Wai Leung any day over Leonardo DiCraprio. Most of you probably have no idea who they are even though they’re hugely successful Hong Kong movie stars.

Let’s strip all the best acting, picture, editing, directing, etc. awards, and just deal with the thievery.

The Departed won the Academy Award for Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay and it was nominated for the best screenplay at the Golden Globes where there was zero mention that it was adapted from Infernal Affairs. It also won or was nominated for best screenplay at twenty other awards shows, out of which, eight of them don’t mention that it was adapted from another source at all. Over 40% of its writing awards and nominations fail to mention that it was not original and it already existed as another movie released only four years prior. But, that movie wasn’t in English, so I guess it doesn’t count.

The Departed‘s writer William Monahan contributed 50 unnecessary minutes which dragged things out by adding lots more ‘splaining, because Muricans are dumb and couldn’t possibly follow a plot unless we’re spoon fed. There was little mention of the movie’s real writers, Alan Mak and Felix Chong, who by the way, won a ton of Asian awards for their original writing, but none in America.

Go watch Infernal Affairs and tell me it’s not a better movie. I’ll disagree every time. To be fair though, perhaps had I not known what was going to happen in The Departed–a supposedly new movie when I watched it–before it happened, I might not hate it so much. It was the last Scorsese movie I ever watched.

End of The Departed rant.

So, yeah, I wasn’t terribly surprised to hear that Sam Smith won a ton of awards for a song already written by someone else. Nor was I surprised to hear that he didn’t even acknowledge Tom Petty or Jeff Lynne (who was there) any of the times he was on stage accepting awards. Disappointed, yes, but not terribly surprised.

It seems the American public doesn’t care about creativity or originality. Most people don’t even know that a lot of their beloved pop idols’ songs–starting with Britney Spears’ …Baby One More Time all the way to Taylor Swift’s Shake It Off–were actually written by a 43-year-old Swedish dude. Max Martin has written more number-one hits than anyone besides Lennon and McCartney, plus, 58 top ten hits in the United Kingdom and 51 in the United States, yet no one knows who he is.

A middle-aged man wrote Katy Perry’s I Kissed A Girl and no one cares.

Kinda puts a different spin on it, eh?
Kinda puts a different spin on it, eh?

So, y’all go on with your popular stuff. Buy yet another pale, unoriginal imitation. I’ll keep listening to bands who write their own songs and watch movies you’ll probably never see until they’re remade into Murican English for no goddamn reason. Just keep on leaving Tom Petty and me out of your celebrations of theft and unoriginality.

We’re All Liars


In the wake of the Brian Williams scandal, where he was called out for repeatedly telling an anecdote that wasn’t at all true, there’s been a lot of talk about bald-faced media LIES (a post topic in and of itself), and the fallible mechanism called the human memory (this post’s topic).

In the weeks and years immediately following the incident in question, Williams’ retelling was fairly accurate, but over time, instead of being in a helicopter well behind the action, he was right in the thick of it.

I once caught a fish this big...
I once caught a fish this big…

The fact is, he’s a liar. But, so am I. And, while we’re at it, so are you. Sorry, but you lie to yourself and you lie to everyone you know all the time. We all do. There’s even a word for it in psychiatric circles:

Confabulation: To fabricate imaginary experiences as compensation for loss of memory.

Brian Williams may have lied to make himself seem cooler, or he really could have remembered being in a helicopter that was shot down, even though it never happened.

In his memory, this might have been making out with Cindy Crawford. (
In Brian Williams’ memory, this might be him making out with Cindy Crawford.

George W. Bush said that he remembers seeing the first plane crash into the World Trade Center as it happened, even though not one media outlet covered it until a few minutes later and he was in a classroom talking to kids at the time. There’s this famous derpy photo of him being informed of the situation that proves that statement is untrue:

"Mr. President, terrorists have taken a giant shit in your lap." (
“Mr. President, the cafeteria is out of pudding.”

But let’s not use George W. as an example of anything but incompetence.

How about you?

Remember that time that you and your BFF were at that party that one time and that thing happened? Yeah, well, she wasn’t there. She was with you the night the other thing happened at that other party though, so your brain just mashed them together.

Remember how big your childhood house was, right? It wasn’t actually that big; you were smaller. When you picture your first bedroom, you can really picture it. Except it might be not like you remember.

As someone who has plenty of experience with brain FAIL, I can attest to how unreliable and completely changeable the human memory actually is.

We tend to think of our memories as written in stone, but our brains are tricksters. When we demand that they recall something and the memory in question is a little degraded, our brains quick-like-bunny dust it off and fill in the gaps with whatever. It will throw your best friend from college in a memory from college, because he was normally with you during that time period. Except he wasn’t there. And honestly, were you even there?

It’s a sobering thing coming to terms with the fact that the mechanism you rely on for quite literally everything is maybe not so good. Our brains keep us alive by regulating our heart rates, breathing and every other thing our bodies do. They’re responsible for our personalities and every interaction with the world we have ever had. They are at the heart of everything we see, taste, feel, think, read, say and do. They are also in charge of remembering it all, and detailed records don’t seem to be a priority. Good enough is often what we get.

I know first hand how pants-shittingly terrifying it can be to come to terms with just how crappy your brain is. A traumatic brain injury will do that to you. For a while, I couldn’t remember what happened two minutes ago. I had the memory of a goldfish (ahh, this blog’s title suddenly makes sense to you now!).

I had to drop out of school, quit my job and try to shove square pegs into square holes. I did Rorschach tests, word association tests, IQ tests, visual tests, cognitive tests, and tests that tested what kind of test I was testing and how I was testing on the test tests. In other words, I did a lot of tests.

I had to relearn practically everything and my memory went from the healthy memory of a 19-year old to the Swiss cheese memory of a geriatric Alzheimer’s patient. Fortunately for me, because I was so young, my brain was still pretty flexible and I was able to build new neural pathways. It took about a year for me to be functional again, but I will never get it all back. There are memories trapped in my head, mostly of my childhood, that I will never see again.

Also fortunate for me was the fact that I’ve always been a writer. Practically from the time I was old enough to write, I’ve kept a written record of my life, so even if I don’t remember something, I can usually look it up and get my account of what happened at the time. My early childhood is gone forever though.

So much teenage angst...
So much teenage angst…

I tell you all this to reassure you that, even with a massive head trauma like mine, you and your brain don’t have to be enemies. You don’t have to look at every memory that surfaces with suspicion. That said, you shouldn’t take everything at face value either. Your brain is mutable. Memory is not carved in stone, and even though you may see a memory vividly in your mind’s eye, it is not always to be trusted completely.

This post is in no way meant to imply that Brian Williams isn’t a big fat liar. I’m not defending him. All I’m saying is that it is possible–not likely, but just a smidgen possible–that his memory did play a trick on him and he did remember being in that shot-down helicopter when he wasn’t at all.

George W. Bush is still a big fat liar though.