Personality Secrets in Your Mp3 Player

iPOD Hand

Once past saying ‘hello’ and
‘how are you?’ to someone you’ve just met, what is next? How do we make friends
and get to know other people? Psychologists have talked about the importance of
body language, physical appearance and clothing but they’ve not been so keen on
what we actually talk about. A recent study put participants in same-sex and
opposite-sex pairings and told them to get to know each other over 6 weeks
(Rentfrow & Gosling, 2006). Analysing the results, they found the most
popular topic of conversation was music. What is it about music that’s so
useful when we first meet someone and what kind of information can we extract
from the music another person likes?

“how good is music as a
measure of personality?”

The number of people who
talked about music was surprisingly high. In the first week on average 58% of
the pairs discussed music compared to 37% of all the other categories of
conversation combined. Other categories included books, movies, TV, football
and clothes.
Why then do we use music as a
first port of call in getting to know another person? We probably think that
music is indirectly telling us something about the other person’s personality.
For this reason, the second question this study tried to answer was: how good
is music as a measure of personality?
Top 10 personalities

To measure this, participants
were asked to judge people’s personality solely on their top 10 list of songs.
“…a person’s openness to
experience was best communicated by their top 10 list of songs.”

This was compared to
participants results on a standard type of personality test measuring the big
five personality traits: openness to experience, extraversion, agreeableness,
conscientiousness and emotional stability. Overall the results showed that
music preferences were reasonably accurate in conveying aspects of personality.
Of the five traits, it was a person’s openness to experience that was best
communicated by their top 10 list of songs, followed by extraversion and
emotional stability. On the other hand, music preferences didn’t say much about
whether a person was conscientious or not.
What some music preferences
mean for personality:

  • Likes vocals: extraverted
  • Likes country: emotionally
    stable. On the face of it, this is bizarre really because country music is all
    about heartache. Either the emotionally stable are attracted to country music
    or it has a calming effect on the unstable!
  • Likes jazz: intellectual
This raises the question of
why people listen to particular types of music. One theory is that people
simply find some music more pleasant for aesthetic or cognitive reasons.
Another is that people use music to regulate their mood: I want to get hyper
for a night out so I put on some dance music. Another is that music is related
to identity; people listen to music that expresses they way they see
themselves. It seems likely that a combination of all these theories is
probably true.
“…this finding might not hold
in different age-groups.”

One really important caveat
for this study was that the average age of the participants was around 18 so
this finding might not hold in different age-groups. My experience is young
people talk about music much more than older people. This raises the question
of what, for example, might be the most common topic of conversations for other
age-groups getting acquainted. Any suggestions?
Despite this limitation it
seems that talking about music might be a very powerful way to make a
connection with another person.
About the author

Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD
is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from
University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about
scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book
“Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks.

Kayode Ojo
Kayode Emmanuel Ojo is the Co-Founder and Managing Director at SHEFFA Limited. He is presently studying Computer Science at the National Open University, Victoria Island, Lagos.