One day while advising one of my thesis students, we got to talking about sharing music out of your iTunes library. Evidently, every time I opened iTunes while I was in my office grading papers, the contents of my musical library became available for students to see and listen to.
They could be down in the computer lab in my building. They could be in the residence hall next door. They could be using a machine in the experimental lab down the hall.
It didn't really bother me. I don't mind if students know what kind of music I listen to. I think they could stand to listen to a wider variety of artists besides Death Cab for Cutie or the Bare Naked Ladies.
But what information were the students drawing about me, and what kind of a prof I am, by snooping in on my musical collection? What would they think of collection of rap and hop/hop? Or gulp, my country music? What would my colleagues down the hall from me think?
Psychologists have started to study what assumptions people make of others based on their musical preferences.
A recent study (Voida, et al. 2005) found that information about co-workers' music allowed people to make nuanced impressions of their colleagues' personalities that weren't easily derived from interactions at work.
An even newer study by one of my favorite young personality researchers, Sam Gosling, "The Role of Music Preferences in Interpersonal Perception," provides some interesting specifics. People with country music or hip/hop music in their favorites are more emotionally stable (less neurotic) and more extraverted. People perceived them to be this way based solely on knowing what their favorite songs were.
Gosling and his research colleague found that people were able to accurately determine a person's level of agreeableness, emotional stability and openness from seeing his or her top ten favorite songs.
Their research falls into what are called "zero acquaintance perception studies" because they have observers guess a target person's personality without ever interacting with them. In the past, these zero acquaintance studies have had people look at photographs of the target, view a brief silent video clip of the target and even take a peek at what the target's bedroom or office looks like. In all cases, people could actually determine, with surprising accuracy, the personality of the target.
All of the studies use the gold standard "Big Five" personality test which measure personality along 5 key dimensions:
O - Openness to Experience
preference for novelty
- associated with creativity and intelligence
C - Conscientiousness
preference for following rules
- associated with being responsible
E - Extraversion
preference for socializing with others
- associated with being outgoing
A - Agreeableness
preference for acceptance & agreement
- associated with being kind and nice to others
N - Neuroticism
tendency to anxiety, worry
- associated with moodiness, fussiness
What's more, music preferences provided more accurate and useful information about personality than the cues used in previous research.
You can take Gosling's music preferences test and get feedback about your personality here.