The iTunes personality test

by Rob Horning

7 February 2007


A few days ago PsyBlog reported on a study that revealed that people just getting to know one another frequently talk about music and that music serves as a powerful means of signalling personality traits. Here are the details of how the study worked:

participants were asked to judge people’s personality solely on 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.

The study led me to wonder, though, if you couldn’t develop an iTunes plug in that would interpret your personality to yourself by analyzing what you are currently playing or have played most often most recently along the lines of how Pandora analyzes music and makes recommendations. (I need something to tell me why I am listening to so much Jandek.) It would work like a horoscope, perhaps, making oracular pronoucements about how you are feeling and what you seem to need. When iTunes inevitably becomes a social networking tool, this horoscope could link you to other people who might be especially compatible with you. If music is proxy for personality, it seems a cinch to make networked iTunes libraries into a kind of dating service.

Still, I found the specific findings of what music makes for what personality a little suspect:

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

These correlations seem entirely contingent on popular associations, not some intrinsic quality of the music, and will likely change as the public perceptions of these genres change. Also the signalling power of these genres diminish the more they are understood as sheer signals, and the authenticity of a person’s preferences become questionable in light of their obvious instrumentality. If everyone knows you can say you are into the Shins to establish some kind of indie credibility, then liking the Shins no longer signifies that. The music’s usefulness as signal empties it of the specific quality it originally conveyed. That’s why this is such a poignant and powerful PSA. Music preferences become subject to the rational expectations critique—the alleged coolness of the preference is already built in by the time you choose to like something, so you get no added coolness out of the choice. You have to choose to like something uncool and hope the zeitgeist blows in that direction. Likewise, jazz signals not that you are intellectual, but that you were aware that it would make you seem as though you are intellectual at the time the choice was made. The more obvious the signal, the less authentic the choice seems, and the less it seems to reflect your true personality as opposed to the one you are scheming to convey. I don’t think this study undermines this, because music selection and personality test taking can both be games of projecting who you want to be rather than measuring something that’s there and beyond your control. This, in fact, may be why it is always a waste of time to try to determine what someone’s “true” personality is—it is always ad hoc, contingent on choices in the moment, on what one seeks to stress and minimize.

Perhaps this is why I find the question of what music I like a really annoying one to answer, because it has nothing to do with, well, what music I like. I secretly resent the question; it’s another way of asking, “Who the hell do you think you are?” It’s like the spot on social networking profiles that encourage you to list what books and records and movies you like; this is impossible to do honestly. Generally I’m very reticient to disclose my personality (why I wear a de facto uniform), which, New York magazine tells me, places me in a moribund demographic. I just strongly suspect that anything I say about myself, no matter how well-intentioned, will eventually be made into a lie by my actions, what people should probably judge me by. Which raises this question: Is forming tastes about consumer-culture product now the only form of public action left open to us?

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