There are two types of people in this world: those who appreciate the Beastie Boys' "Sabotage," and those who don't.
At least, this is one metric a recent PLOS One study from the University of Cambridge used to determine whether our "cognitive style" can predict the styles of music we'll enjoy. According to the research, there's a clear connection between one's penchant for certain songs — like "Sabotage" or Norah Jones' "Come Away With Me" — and scores on a major personality test that determines whether one is a systematic, empathetic or balanced thinker.
Those who like the Beastie Boys are often more systematic, rule-based thinkers. Jones fans, on the other hand, are more empathetic in their world view.
The study. To test these connections, researchers surveyed more than 4,000 participants, recruited primarily through a myPersonality Facebook app. They first determined their levels of empathic and systematic thinking, using empathizing quotient, or EQ, and systemizing quotient personality assessments. Later, they asked those same participants to rate their affinity for 50 pieces of music from relatively unknown artists to account for previously held personal and cultural associations. The music included songs from more than two dozen genres and subgenres.
Individuals with a high EQ are often more attuned to the mental states of others, which enables them to identify, predict and respond appropriately to other's displays of emotion. Consequently, they spring for more mellow, reflective and emotional music, like folk, country and R&B. They dislike genres like punk and metal, though systematic thinkers eat them up.
Systematic thinkers often work to decipher the rules behind natural and abstract systems, such as weather patterns and mathematical relationships, the authors of the study note. They favor music that has a high degree of sonic complexity and "cerebral depth," like Metallica or the Beastie Boys.
Side note: Cerebral Depth would make a killer heavy metal band name.
Researchers also tested these characteristics within specific genres. Given a range of jazz from standards such as Billie Holiday and Norah Jones to the dissonant free jazz of Pharoah Sanders and Miles Davis, the trends held: Empathetic listeners sprang for the more smoothing, more emotional sounds, while systematic thinkers craved complex tunes.
This adds to a slew of music research. Similar studies have linked musical preferences with personality traits. A 2003 study found that grouping music into sonic characteristics, such as "reflective and complex" and "intense and rebellious" rather than by genre could the wide array of personality dimensions of listeners, such as openness to experience, political orientation and verbal IQ. However, little research has connected musical taste with one's "cognitive style." According to David Greenberg, the Cambridge study's lead author, this can actually be a "better predictor of what music [people] like than their personality," he said in a news release.
Greenberg claims that the study could have some interesting applications to streaming music and other new music technologies. "A lot of money is put into algorithms to choose what music you may want to listen to, for example on Spotify and Apple Music," he told the Cambridge press office. "By knowing an individual's thinking style, such services might in [the] future be able to fine-tune their music recommendations to an individual."
If we see Spotify giving us full psychological exams in the near future, we'll know why.