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Taste in music reflects how your brain processes information

Metalheads tend to be 'systemisers' according to study

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 July, 2016, 5:40am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 July, 2016, 12:17pm

Confession: One of my current guilty pleasures is listening to country music, a genre of music that used to make me want to change the radio station as fast as possible.

But as uncharacteristic as it is for me to become obsessed with country hits, it makes sense for the way I react to the world around me, according to a 2015 study in US journal PLOS ONE.

In the study, researchers found that the types of music you like are linked to the way you process information.

There are two ways people respond to their surroundings, the researchers decided:

The first way is called empathising, where someone is socially apt and can easily interact with those around them. The second way, called systemising, describes a less sociable way of interaction where the individual interacts with others based on a pre-set notion of how they think they should act.

For example, when asked by a friend if their new hair cut looks good, a systemiser would tell the truth without considering their friend's feelings, while an empathyser would fudge the truth and saw what they thought would make their friend feel good. This type of systemising is more common in men than women.

In fact, this hypothetical haircut situation is one of the pyschological questions that psychologists from the University of Cambridge asked about 4,000 study subjects, who were recruited through a Facebook app.

First, the participants took a survey that asked psychological questions to determine whether they empathise, systemise, or had a balance of the two. To figure that out, participants answered questions like "I always get emotional while watching movies" with strongly disagree, disagree, agree, or strongly agree.

To rule out predispositions to certain types of music, they asked the participants to evaluate 50 songs from 26 genres and subgenres.

What the study found

The researchers found that empathic people tended to like mellow, unpretentious or contemporary tunes such as Norah Jones' "Come away with me" or Jeff Buckley's "Hallelujah." This kind of music included country and folk songs, which is most likely where my recent obsession with country music factors in. The songs could express negative emotions or be a trendy techno song — the empathisers were into it.

But, ask the empathisers to listen to punk or heavy metal, and their reactions weren't as favourable.

Systemising people, on the other hand, tended to like high-energy music that conveyed positive emotions and songs with a fair amount of intricacy, like a complicated piece of classical music with hundreds of instruments involved.

People whose answers didn't have a clear distinction between systemiser or empathiser tended to have a mix of both music tastes.

Here's a graph of what kind of music empathisers (Type E), systemisers (Type S) or balanced (Type B) liked. The more positive the score, the more that group of people liked that particular musical characteristic. The more negative the score, the more people of certain groups disliked that musical characteristic.

The mean age of the people involved in the study were around their mid-twenties, but some participants were as old as 61. The researchers controlled for gender and age. Even with gender and age playing a role, the connection between empathiser/sympathiser type and taste in music was still strong.

Interested in seeing if your thinking style matches your taste in music? Here's a quiz that can help you determine whether you empathise, systemise, or do a little of both.

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