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Speaker spotlight - David Greenberg

David Greenberg, a PhD student from the Department of Psychology discusses personality quizzes and what our musical taste says about our personalities.

David is involved in two events at the Cambridge Science Festival.  GetPsyched personality quiz during which the audience take part in brief quizzes and find out their scores on psychological tests ranging from personality to relationship style. What does your musical taste say about your personality? The music we choose to listen to is not random, our musical taste and abilities are tied to our personality and the way we think.

CSF: Do you design the tests and quizzes yourself? If so, where do the ideas come from?

DG: Back when I was training in jazz improvisation and hanging around jazz clubs in New York City, I noticed that my teachers had very different perspectives. Some would teach with a much more systematic and analytic approach to music, while others had a more emotional way of approaching it. In fact, the way that they performed on stage reflected their different approached. It was clear anecdotally that there was a link between their personality and their interpretation of the music. Later at Cambridge, I applied this idea to the study of musical preferences to see how empathy and thinking styles might be linked to the types of music that people most enjoyed.

All of the tests that we implement in our research have been empirically validated in previous research and are widely used by the scientific community. We also develop our own music-based tests to assess the specific phenomena that we aim to measure, such as the Musical Engagement Test (MET). The MET assesses five different reaction styles to music including intellectual, emotional, physical, social, and narrative. We test each measure’s validity, reliability, and generalisability across multiple samples to ensure that it is robust.

The personality tests that we use in our research have been developed and validated in previous research and have been used internationally for years. For example, the personality tests that assess the Big Five traits of personality have been used for over two decades. And the tests that we use to assess empathy-systemising thinking styles have been developed in the early 2000’s by Professor Simon Baron-Cohen here at Cambridge.

CSF: Can a personality quiz truly reveal the full extent of an individual’s personality? Please explain a little more about how the quiz does that.

DG: Personality is a very complex phenomenon and there have been varied approaches to conceptualising and measuring it throughout the past hundred years: from inkblot tests to self-report assessments. Currently, one of the most widely used and accepted models in personality psychology is the Five-Factor Model or Big Five. This model organises personality into five dimensions: Openness to Experience (O), Conscientiousness (C), Extraversion (E), Agreeableness (A), and Neuroticism (N). They conveniently spell out OCEAN—so some refer to it as the ‘Ocean of personality’. Each of these traits includes six smaller facets, so there are 30 facets that we can measure in total, from excitement-seeking to orderliness. These traits are useful in capturing characteristics that can be observed in everyday life and have been linked to various biological and environmental factors. The basic five traits can be measured reliably with as little at 10 self-report questions, but capturing all 30 facets requires at least 120 to 240 questions.

In addition to the Big Five, we have been exploring how empathy and systemising levels predict musical behaviour. Empathy is the ability to understand another person’s thoughts and feelings and to put yourself in another person’s shoes. Systemising is the drive to understand and interpret patterns and systems—those that are mechanical, categorical, mathematical, classification, and abstract. We’re discovering over the past five years that varied empathising-systemising thinking styles are explaining individual differences in a range of musical phenomena including musical preferences and engagement.

CSF: Are these quizzes useful in a clinical context? If so, how?

DG: Imagine you are a music therapist seeing a patient for the very first time. You know little about the patient’s background except for their age, gender, and some symptoms. Prior assessments of the patient’s personality and thinking style can help the therapist to tailor their treatment to best match the needs of the patient right from the start.

The field of music therapy is still relatively young, but there is strong evidence that it is effective for improving physical and mental health. It’s effective for both verbal and nonverbal children with autism. It is also used as a way to help process emotions for individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

CSF: So, if an individual had predominantly electronic and dance music on their playlist what would this say about them?

DG: People who score high on Extraversion and Agreeableness tend to prefer music that is more energetic and danceable. Dance and electronic genres provide the necessary stimulation to capture an extravert’s attention. An extravert is most comfortable in situations that include other people and are energised by social stimulation, including music that you dance to with others.

CSF: Can music alter our understanding of a film?

DG: In film and theatre music is continuously giving us cues as to what is happening from scene to scene. Is the scene romantic, mysterious, sad, exhilarating? Imagine watching a horror film without the anticipatory music in the background to pump up our adrenaline. What would the movies Jaws have been like without the famous two notes in the theme that increasingly get faster and faster the closer we come to seeing that dreaded shark for the first time. If we think back to silent films, like Charlie Chaplin, the music was informing the nature of the scene. It helps us to step not only into the scene but also into helps put us into the shoes of the characters so we can feel what they are meant to be feeling.

CSF: What would we find on your playlist? And what does it say about you?

DG: My playlist has songs from a range of different musicians from John Coltrane to Joni Mitchell. Today, I’m listening to John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, but last week I was listening to a relatively unknown Australian alternative musician named Kim Churchill, especially his song Windows to the Sky. And last month I was listening to a lot of Hozier, especially his live version of The Beatles’ Blackbird. What does it say about me? People who score high on Openness to Experience tend to have their playlists filled with music that spans range of different genres and artists and tend to like music that is ‘out of the box’; this includes preferences for reflective and complex music including jazz. The main element of jazz is improvisation—a form of spontaneous composition where a musician improvises over a set of harmony, rhythm, and melody. This is likely appealing to someone who scores high on Openness because it continuously provides new information to be sonically digested.